The Casper College men’s basketball team’s postseason journey begins against a familiar foe Saturday.
The T-Birds (21-9, 9-5 Region IX North) host Western Wyoming Community College (14-14, 7-7) at 5 p.m. at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym in the first round of the Region IX tournament.
“It seems like we play Western every year,” Casper College head coach Dan Russell said.
Russell isn’t far off. This is the third time in four years the T-Birds and Mustangs have met in the tournament’s opening round. Last year the T-Birds completed a season sweep with a convincing 89-49 victory at The Swede. In 2015, however, the Mustangs ended the T-Birds’ season with an 82-72 victory.
Casper College is 2-0 against Western Wyoming this season — 69-66 on Jan. 17 and 68-67 on Feb. 10 — but, as has been the case most of the season, the T-Birds will be short-handed.
Freshman forward Zion Tordoff is the latest casualty as he joins sophomore big Octavion Corley on the sidelines for the rest of the season. The T-Birds might also be without freshman guard Isaiah Banks, who injured his foot against Sheridan and didn’t play in the victory over Gillette.
“This season it’s just been one injury after another,” Russell said. “But the guys we have left have embraced their roles and we’ve adopted a next-man-up philosophy.”
Ten different T-Birds have been in the starting lineup at some point this season and only redshirt sophomore Jackson Stent has played in all 30 games.
Last week against Gillette, the T-Birds starting five of Stent, point guard Chase Winchester, sophomore big Antun Maricevic and wings Miguel Levy and Nolan Bertain played the bulk of the minutes, with all scoring in double figures.
Russell is hoping to have Banks available to give some rest to Winchester, who played all 40 minutes against the Pronghorns.
Casper College knocked off the 19th-ranked Pronghorns just three days after taking down No. 13 Sheridan College.
“We’re at the point where we almost have to live and die with our starting rotation,” Russell said. “But these guys know this is the time of year when you have to put all your cards on the table.”
The 6-foot-10 Maricevic leads the team with 15.2 rebounds and 7.5 rebounds per game, with Bertain (14.3), Winchester (13.6) and forward Wilfried Likayi (10.9) also averaging double-digit points. Likayi played just 9 minutes against Gillette because of foul trouble.
The winner of Saturday’s game advances to the quarterfinals of the Region IX tournament in La Junta, Colorado, home of South sub-region champion Otero Junior College.
“Saturday is step one in what we want to accomplish,” Russell said. “These guys know from here on out it’s win or go home and I don’t think they’re ready for their run to be over yet.”