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UW’s Rise on Basketball Court Matched by Academic Success

March 18, 2015
people posing in a large group on a basketball court
Wyoming Cowboys seniors pose for a photo with family members and Coach Larry Shyatt on Senior Night earlier this month. From left are Derek Cooke Jr., Charles Hankerson Jr., Riley Grabau, Jack Bentz and Larry Nance Jr. (UW Photo)

The return of the University of Wyoming men’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament marks a remarkable four-year hoops renaissance.

But that’s only part of the story of the Cowboys’ success under head coach Larry Shyatt and his staff.

The team’s improvement on the court has been matched by significant strides in the classroom, as illustrated by the fact that all five Cowboy seniors are scheduled to graduate on time this spring. That’s a noteworthy achievement in today’s Division I college basketball landscape, says Phil Wille, UW’s associate athletics director for internal operations.

“These guys, in particular, have a work ethic on the court that matches what they’re doing in the classroom,” Wille says. “What they’re doing is really high level. It’s really difficult.”

The five seniors -- Jack Bentz, Derek Cooke Jr., Riley Grabau, Charles Hankerson Jr. and Larry Nance Jr. -- and others associated with the program say it all starts with the coaches.

“With this coaching staff, if you don’t have your grades in check, you’re not practicing, you’re not going on trips, you’re not playing. No. 1 is academics, and No. 2 is basketball,” says Nance, UW’s first-team all-conference forward from Akron, Ohio, who will graduate with a degree in criminal justice in May. “Each assistant coach is assigned five guys to oversee academically, and they do a great job of that. If you slip up on a test or even a homework assignment, they’re right on top of you.”

“The coaching staff has prioritized academics here in our program -- they want us to make most of our academic and athletic opportunities. It’s great to be on a team that cares about it,” says Bentz, an academic all-conference walk-on from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who will graduate with a business degree in marketing with a minor in finance. “It really speaks volumes that all five of us are going to graduate on time. All of the discipline, the hard work and self-motivation that you need on the basketball court -- well, you need that in the classroom as well. There’s definitely a correlation.”

Since returning to UW as head coach in 2011, Shyatt has recruited “high-character” student-athletes and insisted on academic performance, Wille says. As a result, the Cowboys’ Academic Progress Rate (APR) -- the metric used by the NCAA to hold institutions accountable for the academic progress of student-athletes -- has climbed every year and is projected to reach the 960 range (out of a possible 1,000) for this academic year. APR takes into account academic eligibility, grade-point average, progress toward degrees and student-athlete retention, among other factors.

“Coach Shyatt does a great job of graduating student-athletes,” Wille says. “The numbers have increased every year he’s been here.”

While there are other teams in the NCAA Tournament field with higher APRs than UW, there likely aren’t many with five seniors set to graduate on time, Wille says. He and Al Reiser, UW’s assistant athletics director for academic services, say this group has established a high academic standard that will carry on after they graduate.

“We’re seeing every guy on the team succeed academically,” Reiser says. “That starts with senior leadership. They’re doing it the right way, and because of that, the younger guys are doing it the right way.”

Juggling Act

Balancing athletics and academics is a challenge, Wille says. During the basketball season, the student-athletes put in about 20 hours a week for practice and games -- not including travel -- and often miss man in basketball uniform talking to another manclassroom time. Study hall and tutoring sessions are available, but that doesn’t leave much time for other activities.

“It really puts an emphasis on what these guys do on their own time,” says Wille, who himself successfully navigated the life of a student-athlete as a member of the Valparaiso University basketball team (1998-2002).

Hankerson, a University of Alabama transfer from Miami, Fla., who’s two classes away from a degree in communications, says UW has “top-notch people who help me and everybody on the team achieve academic success.” Still, it’s not easy.

“I wouldn’t trade this life for anything, but I feel all of the sacrifices we have to make sometimes go unnoticed,” he says. “It’s very tough to maintain good grades and stay on track.”

For example, Hankerson notes that one of his classes involves a group project in which he couldn’t participate while the team was winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas last week.

Reiser says he served as a proctor to allow several members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, and the UW spirit squad, to take tests while they were in Las Vegas.

Bentz says he’s taking classwork to Seattle as the Cowboys travel for their first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Northern Iowa, to prepare for a test in portfolio management when he gets back.

“It’s part of the deal of being a student-athlete,” he says. “It just takes time management, hard work and discipline. If you really care about it, you can do it.”

Life after Basketball

Of course, the reason for the focus on academics is the fact that “at some point in time, basketball ends,” Reiser says.

“This is about figuring out what to do after basketball ends,” Wille says. “It’s about using sports as a vehicle, rather than a destination.”

As a result, selecting a major is an important step for a student-athlete.

Reiser notes that Cooke, who will graduate with a dual degree in social science and psychology, started his degree in social science because it was the fastest to graduate -- but then added psychology as a second major because that’s what he wants to pursue professionally. Because of that addition, the transfer from Cloud County Community College in Kansas, who’s from Washington, D.C., “has had to work incredibly hard -- often overloading on classes during the semester,” Reiser says.

Even Nance, who many expect to have an opportunity to play professionally, says he has studied with an eye on life after basketball.

“I’ve been involved in some (job) shadowing programs and forensics work in the lab. If basketball doesn’t work -- and knock on wood, I hope it does -- I definitely have something to fall back on. A degree in criminal justice from the University of Wyoming leaves me with a pretty great backup plan,” says Nance, who promised his father, former NBA all-star Larry Nance Sr., that he would graduate. “My parents, knowing how important it is to graduate, they’re not going to let me leave without getting that piece of paper.”

Fellow criminal justice major Grabau, from Boulder, Colo., says he’s proud to be part of a group of seniors that has set a high standard on and off the court.

“When you’re playing college basketball and have all these moments -- winning the conference tournament and receiving accolades -- a lot of people kind of forget about your studies. We have managed to always remember them,” Grabau says. “The coaching staff has done a great job of keeping us on track with what we need to do. I have to give them all of the credit -- although I guess we deserve some credit for working hard. The dedication of these seniors to getting a degree is really cool to see, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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