Ranking the Best Basketball Teams in Wyoming Cowboys History
Regardless of the outcome tomorrow, this year's Wyoming Cowboys basketball squad will go down as one of the greatest teams in the program's 110 year history. They have already set a school record for home wins with 17, won the first Mountain West Tournament in school history, earned a Top 25 ranking for the first time since 1988 and advanced the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 13 years.
But how do they compare to the best Wyoming teams ever? Here's the Top 5:
1. 1943 NCAA Champions - In the annals of Wyoming basketball history, no two names are bigger than Everett Shelton and Ken Sailors, not even Larry Shyatt and Larry Nance, Jr. Shelton arrived in 1939 and quickly built the program in a national powerhouse. When a small town Wyoming farm boy named Ken Sailors joined the team in 1940, he revolutionized the game with a crazy new invention called "the jump shot".
In '43, Sailors was named college basketball's Player of the Year and led the Pokes to a victory over Georgetown in the NCAA title game. Sailors left Laramie the following year to serve in World War II, but returned in 1945, eventually becoming a three time All American before playing in the NBA. Sailors was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
2. 1934 National Champions - Willard "Dutch" Witte holds the distinction of being one of Wyoming's most successful basketball coaches and least successful football coaches. In 1934, before the introduction of a national tournament, Dutch's younger brother Less Witte, a two time All American, led the Pokes to a 26-4 record. The Helms Foundation, which was the first national college basketball voting poll, named Wyoming as its National Champion.
Witte later took over the football program, compiling a 16-30-3 record in six seasons.
3. 1981 and 1982 NCAA Tournament Teams - After Shelton's retirement in 1959, the program suffered through nearly two decades of futility. In 1978, Jim Brandenburg took over and put Wyoming basketball back on the map.
In the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 seasons, Brandenburg led the Cowboys to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Wyoming advanced to the second round of the tournament in both years and won consecutive WAC Championships for the only time in school history.
4. 1987 Sweet Sixteen - Coming off an appearance in the NIT Finals the previous year, the '87 Pokes struggled during the regular season. Luckily, the Cowboys got hot at the right time, winning the WAC tournament and scoring upset wins over Virginia and UCLA before falling to Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Running Rebels in the Sweet Sixteen.
Interesting enough, the '87 team finished 4th in the conference before winning the post season tournament and earning a #12 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sound familiar? It should, because this year's Cowboys team did the same exact thing. Hopefully, that's an omen of things to come.
5. 1952 Elite Eight - The 1952 NCAA Tournament was the first to feature a "Final Four". Back in those days, the field consisted of 16 unseeded teams, who were divided into two regions. The '52 team finished 20-10 overall, first in the Mountain States Conference. After defeating Oklahoma City in the opening round, they lost to Santa Clara in the round of eight.
They later squared off against Seattle in the West Regional third place game, losing 80-64. No Wyoming team has made it further in the past 67 years.
Honorable Mention: 2002 NCAA Tournament Team - After finishing tied for the conference lead the previous season, coach Steve McClain's '02 Cowboys won the school's first outright Mountain West regular season title and earned an at large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Pokes knocked off Gonzaga in the first round, before falling to Arizona in the round of 32.