Under Dan Russell, strong guard play has been a staple of the Casper College men’s basketball team.
That was supposed to be the case again this year, Russell’s fifth on the Thunderbirds’ sideline.
But starting point guard Chase Winchester suffered a stress fracture in the second game of the season and off-guard Damian Wilson has missed four games with a groin injury. The T-Birds were dealt another blow when sophomore guard Ountae Campbell quit the team.
“It’s been tough,” Russell said. “We’ve had to make adjustments, but our guys are still out there competing.”
The T-Birds (5-3) have won two in a row heading into this weekend’s Thanksgiving Classic at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. They’ll face Colorado Northwestern Community College on Thursday, followed by Lamar Community College on Friday and Rexburg United on Saturday.
While Wilson, who was averaging 14.8 points per game before his injury, will likely be available for limited minutes this weekend, Winchester probably won’t return until the second semester.
In their absence, freshmen Nolan Bertain and Isaiah Banks and sophomores Levy Miguel and Blake Godwin (Sheridan) have had to play the majority of the minutes in the backcourt.
“Those guys lack experience, but they’ve been picking up the slack,” Russell said. “And the good thing is they’re getting better every game.”
In the T-Birds’ last game, an 81-54 victory over Williston State, the 6-foot-4 Bertain played all 40 minutes and scored a career-high 31 points.
“Nolan is one of the better shooters we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Russell said.
Still, Casper College has had to adjust its offensive game plan, leaning heavily on sophomore post players Antun Maricevic and Octavion Corley.
“No doubt the bigs have carried us early,” Russell said. “We’ve been forced to play more of an inside-out game and I think we’ve found a rhythm.
“But now teams are starting to adjust and they’re packing it in against us.”
Even with the added attention, the 6-10 Maricevic leads the team in scoring (16.9) and rebounding (7.4), with the 7-0 Corley pitching in 9.5 points and 4.9 rebounds a game.
The T-Birds have also gotten solid contributions from forwards Wilfried Likayi, Jackson Stent and Zion Tordoff. Likayi averages 11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while Stent and Tordoff have combined to average 11.3 points per game.
Russell expects the T-Birds to be challenged this weekend by all three opponents, although Lamar might present the biggest challenge.
“They’re really athletic and they’ve got good guard play,” he said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Following this weekend’s games, Casper College has four more games to close out the semester. The T-Birds will jump back into action in early January, with Region IX North sub-region play beginning Jan. 11.
“Right now we’re just trying to keep our heads above water until we get some guys back,” Russell said. “As long as we keep improving we’ll be all right.”