March Madness, the hallowed ground of college basketball where campus heroes become legends that live in inmortality.
From buzzer-beaters to epic performances, the “Dance” is where players make a name for themselves. Unfortunately for even some of the best, the stage it too big and the hype simply overtakes the expected outcomes. But this article is not to highlight those who did not live up to the hype, but to acknowledge one of those who did.
The year was 1987, and a young man by the name of Fennis Dembo left his mark on the world of college basketball. Many failed to appreciate his game, maybe because he played for the University of Wyoming, but Dembo was one of the most dominant players in the country at that time, finishing his career as a Cowboy as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder, accumulating more than 2,300 points and 950 boards. His team was coming fresh off of an NIT championship the prior year and was entering the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in the school’s history since 1967.
The opportunity was finally here to show the rest of the world what was happening in the mountains of Laramie, Wyoming. In the Cowboys’ first round match-up they would take on the #5 seed Virginia Cavaliers who did not have a ton of fanfare as in their recent years with All-American center Ralph Sampson. Although playing the role of underdog, Fennis and company would simply take care of business, winning a squeaker 64-60. However it was the second round match-up where everyone began to really pay attention to the Cowboys and their star player.
Wyoming would face UCLA, whose roster showcased the likes of future NBA studs Reggie Miller and Pooh Richardson. From the opening tip, there was no question who the best player on the floor was on that day. Simply put, Fennis Dembo put the world on notice that he was as real as anyone in college basketball, dropping a ridiculous 41 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists on 9 of 14 from the field while also going an incredible 16 of 16 from the free throw line. His performance wasn't just great.
It was legendary.
Unfortunately for Wyoming, the Sweet 16 presented a match-up with UNLV, the #1 seed in the West and the #1 rated team in the final regular season AP Top 20 poll. The Cowboys would fall to Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin' Rebels, however little blame could be placed on Dembo who posted another impressive stat line, 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting from the floor, 9 boards, and 4 assists. His three-game run made him the highest scoring average of any player in the 1987 NCAA tournament. More importantly, he made a massive impression on the country. His unforgettable performances and his unforgettable name positioned him as a superstar-in-waiting.
The 1987-88 season started with every players dream as Dembo received the honor of being Sports Illustrated’s coverboy for its College Preview Issue. The Cowboys and Dembo put together a regular season that bested the previous years performance with the team finishing 26-6 and climbing to #13 in the AP poll. Fennis led his team once again to the NCAA Tournament, averaging just a shade over 20 points per game. Wyoming was chosen as a #7 seed in the West region and faced Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount team featuring Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble before they became legends in their own right. The "run and gun" approach of the Lions was just too overwhelming and the Cowboys fell 119 - 115, with only 14 points delivered in a foul plagued performance that ended prematurely with his 5th foul at the 3:10 mark of the second half. Not the ending Dembo would have hoped for, but nonetheless it left a legendary impression on college basketball and even more so on a school that is oftentimes forgotten about.
It's now 2015, and the Cowboys are set to ride again in the NCAA Tournament. It has been 13 years since the Mountain West school has punched their ticket for the big show. Earning a #12 seed, Wyoming will face Northern Iowa in a match-up that have many experts eliminating the Cowboys from their brackets in a first round loss. And while #12 versus #5 match-ups have been highlighted in years past as the most likely to produce upsets, this could prove to be in Wyoming’s favor. Of course Fennis Dembo is not walking through those doors, however there is another stud who is looking to use his NBA bloodlines to elevate his game and place his stamp on legendary status.
Enter Larry Nance Jr., son of of former NBA dunk champion Larry Nance Sr., a 13-year-NBA veteran who dazzled fans with almost freakish athletic ability. Junior, a 6-foot-8 forward who has bounce like his father, is regarded by many as the best dunker in college basketball today. But Nance Jr. will be the first to tell you not to label him as just a dunker. His well rounded skill translates to all aspects of the game averaging more than 16 points, 7 rebounds, and a couple of assists all while being double-teamed every night out. And refusing to be a one-way player, Nance Jr. was also awarded the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Having battled through adversity in years past, Larry Nance Jr’s story is remarkable as his will was constantly tested. While in high school, the Nance family could never figure out why Larry Jr. seemed so lethargic. During his sophomore year, they had him tested and it was discovered that their son had Crohn's Disease, a chronic ailment that attacks the digestive tract, leading to pain and inflammation while also impeding growth. Nance Jr. began receiving treatment and soon the agonizing pain that he was used to feeling began to fade. He would also grow an additional 8 inches from his 5-foot-11 frame.
Earning a full ride to the University of Wyoming, Nance Jr. would continue to expand his game over the years and eventually become on the best players in the conference as a junior, averaging 15.4 points, 8.6 rebounds. But with seven games left in the 2013-14 season, he heard something pop in his knee while running down the court; he tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). But unlike many, Nance would not allow this injury to change his course as he would work hard and come back stronger than ever.
From Crohn’s Disease to ACL surgery, to even having a short bout with mononucleosis during this season which forced him to miss four games, Larry Nance Jr. is poised and ready to channel his inner Fennis Dembo and lead the Cowboys to their first NCAA Tournament win in more than a decade. With all of the obstacles that have impeded his path, it is a sure bet that Nance Jr. will not allow this opportunity to come and go without giving everyone something to remember him by.
And all Wyoming fans are hoping that everyone will be asking "How 'bout them Cowboys!"