The day first-year Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt introduced himself to his new team last April, he made a promise he insists he hasn't broken.
"I told them that our staff not only wasn't going to dwell on the past, we would not speak about the past and or even watch tape of the past," Shyatt said. "Their time management, their punctuality, their discipline, their level of unselfishness and their work ethic would be evaluated from April 4 on and nothing they had done up to that point would be."
Offering a losing team a fresh start isn't the most original coaching ploy, but it appears to be exactly the psychological boost Wyoming needed to shake the memory of back-to-back 21-loss seasons. The Cowboys have bolted to a 10-1 start, not bad for a team picked anywhere from sixth to eighth in most preseason Mountain West projections.
Granted Wyoming's non-conference schedule has featured plenty of home games against directional schools, but the Cowboys did notch their best win of the season Saturday when they snapped a 23-game road losing streak with a victory at Colorado. Plus, as Shyatt admitted, the lightly regarded teams Wyoming is defeating this season were ones that beat them a year ago.
"I'd like to say I made a manageable schedule to build confidence, but four of these teams we already played whipped us pretty good last year," Shyatt said. "I did not have a high level of confidence going into the season, but I feel like now it was really helpful for this team."
The primary factors that sparked Wyoming's unexpectedly strong start are an increased emphasis on defense, more efficient point guard play from JayDee Luster and contributions from two guys who didn't play last season.
Wing Luke Martinez, who missed all of last season with a broken elbow, leads Wyoming in scoring at 13.0 points per game and has hit 46.6 percent of his threes. And USC transfer Leonard Washington has made the most of his second opportunity, improving his attitude, rededicating himself in the classroom and averaging 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds on the court.
Those two have benefited from the play of Luster, whose 4.3 points per game don't begin to tell the story of his importance to Wyoming. The 5-foot-9 senior has played fierce on-ball defense and posted a 4.3-to-1 assist-turnover ratio, best in his career and one of the best in the nation this season.
"He has shown terrific maturity in the selection of his passes and shots and that's rubbed off on the rest of this team," Shyatt said. "He's steady and he's not in a hurry, which is important."
Shyatt's philosophy of looking forward and ignoring the past has never been more apparent than in the postgame locker room after Saturday's win at Colorado. Wyoming players exchanged hugs and high fives not because the 65-54 win marked the end of their road losing streak but because the surprisingly onesided victory halted Colorado's 27-game home win streak.
"I think that was significant for this team," Shyatt said. "There was a lot of hugging and a little singing on the bus."
A brief but well-deserved celebration for a Wyoming team that hasn't had many chances in recent years.f our ball club right now.