Jim Gazzolo column: Cowboys’ reason to dream big

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, January 4, 2024

What was unthinkable two months ago is suddenly within reach.

McNeese State, a college basketball wasteland for years, has recently become the hottest spot in the sport.

The Cowboys, yes the McNeese Cowboys, shocked the country last Friday by going into Michigan and thumping the Wolverines 87-76.

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And they got paid $90,000 by Michigan to do it.

What was supposed to be a buy-win for the Big Ten Wolverines could become a cash cow for the much-talked-about Cowboys.

Don’t be confused. This was not an upset either. There were no miracle shots, no Michigan collapse. This was a beating from the opening tip to the final buzzer.

McNeese led for the game’s final 33 minutes and trailed for less than 3.

It is hard to get this through our heads but the Cowboys were by far the better team.

“I don’t feel it was an upset,” said McNeese guard Shahada Wells. “I think we can beat anybody we play.”

The Cowboys were faster, stronger and better coached. They were never intimidated and looked much more prepared for any situation. They committed four turnovers and forced 15.

McNeese also outscored Michigan 42-14 in the paint and proved to have even more firepower off the bench, as Cowboy subs beat their Wolverine counterparts 25-16.

In just about every aspect of the game the Cowboys proved better. For those of us who have watched this basketball program through the years, this would have never seemed likely.

It’s not that Michigan is a great team, but it is in the Big Ten and traditionally has a good club.

Yet the only thing that kept the game remotely close was Michigan hitting 12 3-point shots, 10 in the first half. But McNeese even countered that in the second half, closing out on shooters better and forcing the Wolverines to miss 8 of 10 after the break.

So this was no fluke.

That leaves us with our new reality as McNeese gets set to open Southland Conference play. At 11-2 and off to their best start in 51 seasons, the Cowboys have matched the total number of victories from a year ago with 18 left to play. Five more wins will guarantee the first winning record since the 2011-12 season.

That’s 18 regular-season games to play. This team has more games planned after that.

It is hard to believe but McNeese is a threat to win 30 games, if you remember the SLC Tournament is in Lake Charles.

“Everybody’s expectations are now heightened,” said McNeese head coach Will Wade. “Nobody is going to be

happy with 23 wins now. We only win 23 now and they will fire me.”

Wade was referring to his proclamation in March that the Cowboys would win 23 games plus one this season. That came after they lost a program-record 23 last year.

The 23-plus one seems like a lock.

The Cowboys aim to win the Southland and make it to the NCAA Tournament, a place they have only been twice before and not since 2002.

Wade, who picked up his 199th career victory thanks to the win over Michigan, has sent out warnings about thinking too far ahead.

“In conference play, everything gets ramped up and everybody knows you better,” Wade said. “We have to be prepared to win our games on the road.”

The Cowboys will have a target on their backs now, but fans can be expected to look past a lot and dream big. This is, after all, what they hoped for when Wade was hired last spring.

But even the most hopeful of McNeese basketball fans could have never expected this.

So why not dream big?

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com