Team preview: Wyoming

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

An emotion-choked Steve McClain insisted the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship night wasn't about him. Indeed the riveting overtime title game in Denver last spring wasn't about the besieged eighth-year Wyoming coach. For the third straight night, the drama on the court topped the off-the-court intrigue about McClain's future.

Wyoming lost its bid to crash the NCAA Tournament as a 15-17 team, instead finishing 14-18 after a heart-breaking, 69-64 loss to San Diego State. But the No. 7 seeded Cowboys had bounced Air Force and Utah from the tournament before taking regular-season league champion Aztecs into overtime. It was quite the turnaround from a team that had lost six in a row going into the conference tournament.

"This wasn't about Steve McClain. This was about a group of kids that invested," McClain said after the final loss. "Am I proud of them? Yeah, I am, because they never let [McClain's status] be a distraction. They understand one thing about Wyoming basketball: We're a family, what happens stays in our family, and you don't let people outside you try to tear you apart. … They didn't let anybody outside try to tear apart what we were doing."

Two days later, after letting McClain twist in the breeze during a firestorm of fan and media speculation over his status, then-Wyoming athletic director Gary Barta announced McClain would be back. Barta, however, won't be in Laramie for the 2006-07 season. He left for Iowa.

"We agreed that neither of us was happy with the win-loss total over the past three years," Barta said in announcing McClain would be back this season. He has four years left on his contract.

"I know that in this business, as head coach, I am measured, ultimately, by wins and losses." McClain said.

There was a time McClain was a hot list coach after steering the Cowboys to an upset of Gonzaga in the 2002 Tournament. Wyoming structured an incentive laden contract to keep him.

But dissatisfaction grew at Wyoming. The Cowboys always had a distinct home advantage with its raucous crowd and "How's your oxygen?" signs pointing out the 7,220-foot elevation to opponents. There was a time, before a change in football coaches, when the best Wyoming basketball crowd outdrew the worst football game. But after posting an average of 10,108 in 2003, attendance at the "Dome of Doom" has dropped precipitously each year to 5,672 last season, little more than a third of capacity.

Yet with the Cowboys' first shot at a conference tournament championship since 1988 in Western Athletic Conference glory days, nearly every one of the 10,840 at the Mountain West Tournament's final night in Denver was a Wyoming fan.

With one of the league's top backcourts offset by a front line full of inexperience and question marks, Wyoming is a long shot to find its way to the championship game again this season.

While some teams use the NCAA's once-every-four-year international trip rule for exotic summer travel, McClain took a more practical approach with a long weekend swing to Canada in early September. It provided an extra 10 days of formal practice and allowed incoming players to join, unlike mid-summer excursions.