Nance Jr., Cowboys surprise early

The first step in getting to Laramie, Wyoming?

Hop a flight to Denver.

Good fortune is a good travel companion from there, or prayer if you're the faithful type, because in an area when a day without snow is a rarity, the 150 miles of highway in between can be tricky at best, closed at worst.

You have to really want to go there.

Which is why when Larry Nance Jr. announced his intentions to make the 1,300-mile commute from his Akron, Ohio home to Laramie for his college career, his father stood silent, his face blank and his jaw pointing toward the floor.

"I about passed out when he told us,'' said 13-year NBA veteran Larry Nance Sr.

His son and his team have found some good smelling salts to revive Dad and wake up the country. As it enters treacherous Mountain West play on Wednesday night against Boise State, Wyoming is 13-0 and ranked in a national poll for the first time in 25 years.

The unexpected (and that's the understatement of the season) hot start has added a new degree of difficulty to college basketball trivia.

Try this parlor game: Ask random friends to name the four remaining undefeated teams in college basketball. Even the novice fan eventually will come around to Duke. The more studious hoops addict might get Arizona and Michigan. Only the truly studious basketball aficionado will spit out Wyoming.

Even that might take a while.

That's because the last time the Cowboys were even in the conversation was a decade ago, their last NCAA tournament berth. And the last time they were truly relevant was in 1987, when they rolled to the regional semifinal behind Fennis Dembo. Otherwise, Wyoming's basketball history books are about as thin as the phone book reserved for the country's least populated state.

"At my age, you wouldn't think too many things surprise me,'' coach Larry Shyatt said. "I've learned to really trust these guys. I'm telling you, it's been a surprise but a real good one because I'm looking for signs, and I haven't seen them. As a coach you get paranoid. Are we practicing long enough? Hard enough? Do they need to be sent a message? They really haven't given me any reason to worry.''

Back in Akron, the Nances aren't worrying anymore, either. Their son, the second of what could be three successful basketball players -- Larry Jr. follows older sister, Casey, who played at Dayton, with younger brother, Pete, already a precocious 12 year old with mad skills in the wings -- is stepping out of the anonymity of his far-flung locale and his father's shadow.

Before Michael Jordan owned the Air and before the dunk contest included cars and other Evel Knievel-esque props, there was the "High Ayatollah of Slamola." Nance Sr. won the NBA's first dunk contest in 1984, beating none other than Dr. J -- Julius Erving -- for the honors. His lone gimmick shot was throwing down two basketballs on one dunk. Instead his victory was earned on the style points of a one-armed reverse cradle jam that would elicit oohs and aahs even today.

But Nance Sr. was more than a dunker. He was a three-time All-Star, a member of the 1989 all-defensive team and retired with more than 15,000 points and 7,000 rebounds to his credit.

When his son was born, he gave him his name, the ultimate honor in a father-son relationship.
And then he spent a lot of years wishing he hadn't.

Being anyone's junior is not easy. There are inevitable comparisons, for good or for bad, and an almost genetic and kinetic expectation.

"Sometimes I wonder if Larry Nance Jr was the right move,'' Nance Sr. said. "When he walks in the gym, anybody who knows me -- parents usually -- they know him and there's a bull's-eye on his back. I know he's got the tools to handle it, but he's still just a kid.''

Senior was so worried about the pressures of bearing his name that for a while, he was reluctant to do interviews, refusing more than agreeing.

Even for this story, he didn't agree until he spoke it over with his son.

It's never bothered Nance Jr. An enthusiastically positive person, he frequently answers a question with, 'Absolutely,' offering it up with a mix of assuredness and pure happiness. Clearly comfortable in his own skin, he has never considered his father's name anything less than an honor.

"There's not a person out there who has a bad thing to say about my dad,'' Nance Jr. said. "If he had been a bad guy, then maybe it might have been tough. But he's so well-liked and so well-respected, he's such a good person, I'm happy to be carrying his name.''

These days it is more than the name that Nance Jr. is carrying. A late bloomer to basketball who played soccer until the seventh grade, the son's career has followed an eerily similar path to the father's.

Both had a late growth spurt -- Nance Sr. climbed four inches in college, Nance Jr. beanpoled seven inches late in high school.
"There was a period of time where I was like a newborn deer,'' Nance Jr. said. "Growing pains definitely got the best of me for a while.''

Neither Nance Sr. nor Jr. turned a lot of college coaches' heads. Nance Sr. wound up at Clemson, essentially his hometown school, because another recruit backed out of his scholarship. Nance Jr., who was all of 6-foot through his junior year, opted for Wyoming over a handful of other mid-major schools.

Then again, a late bloomer/upside recruit is the only kind Shyatt is going to get in his current job. Once Billy Donovan's sidekick who helped construct Florida's back-to-back national championship teams, Shyatt, in his second tour at Wyoming, has to search for players -- not pick from the cream of the crop.

Guards Derrious Gilmore and Luke Martinez are junior college transfers; freshman Josh Adams wasn't rated out of high school, and leading scorer Leonard Washington is a USC transfer.

I don't think anyone can answer what his potential might be just yet. When I first met him he was all arms and legs. I thought these pieces are all going to fit someday, and now they are.

-- Coach Larry Shyatt on Larry Nance Jr.

Blue-chip recruits? Please. The only thing blue on the Wyoming roster are the players' lips after crossing campus in the the winter.

"I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed not having to recruit the haves,'' he said. "I love recruiting the have-nots. It's a pleasure.''

When Shyatt first spied Nance Jr., he was in that newborn deer stage, all angles, ankles and elbows. "A praying mantis,'' Shyatt called him. But he had good feet thanks to his youth career as a soccer player and of course, he had really good genes.

Over the recent holiday break, Nance Sr. broke out some game films. In between a lot of trash talking -- "He loves to bring out his old film and show me how much better he was than me,'' Nance Jr. said -- both were struck by how, in even the smallest details, they were alike.

"The position we have on defense, how we stand on the court, crazy stuff, the way we run,'' Nance Sr. said. "I'd watch him and think, 'Where did he get that?' Then I watched the film. I didn't even realize I did that.''

Nance Jr. certainly inherited his pop's dunking skills. Google 'Larry Nance dunk' and you'll be as likely to find the younger Nance making like Jordan against San Diego State a year ago as you will old clips of dear old dad going to work at the Denver All-Star Game. The jam earned Nance Jr. a spot on ESPN2's Dunk of the Year list and garnered him plenty of YouTube fans.

But as Junior continues to follow in Senior's footsteps, there's one more step to take. Nance became a first-round pick by the time he left Clemson not on the merits of his dunks but on the complexities of his entire game.

Already Nance Jr. is blossoming. He gained confidence this August when he filled in for the suspended Washington during the Cowboys' trip to Canada. And now the one-time sixth man has more than doubled his productivity from his starting role. He's averaging 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

"I don't think anyone can answer what his potential might be just yet,'' Shyatt said. "When I first met him he was all arms and legs. I thought these pieces are all going to fit someday, and now they are.''

Sort of like Wyoming's team.

The Cowboys right now remain something of a curiosity, this year's Murray State if you will. They've beaten just one ranked opponent in this 13-game run -- then-No. 19 Colorado -- and so there are as many critics as there are converts.

Unlike the Racers a year ago, whose Ohio Valley Conference didn't offer much in the way of statement-game opportunities, the Mountain West will give Wyoming plenty of chances to prove its worth.

If it goes wrong, the critics will crow. But if it goes right for the Cowboys, plenty more people might want to find their way to Laramie.