The Casper College men’s basketball program has been a model of consistency the past 11 seasons.
Under Joel Davidson (2006-12) and Dan Russell (2013-present), the Thunderbirds have won at least 20 games 10 of the last 11 years, including last year’s 24-9 record.
The one thing missing, however, is a trip to the National Junior Collegiate Athletics Association Division I tournament. Casper College hasn’t qualified for the season-ending NJCAA tourney since 1996.
Russell, who played for the T-Birds (2004-06) and was an assistant under Davidson before taking over the reins on April 15, 2013, believes this year’s team has a shot to end that drought.
“It’s the same thing every year,” Russell said Friday. “We’ve got to get these guys to buy in and sacrifice themselves for the greater good of the team. And hopefully we can hang one of those red (NJCAA) banners.”
Russell knows it won’t be easy.
The T-Birds return just three players – Octavion Corley, Jackson Stent and Antun Maricevic – who saw playing time last year. The three combined to average 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
Corley is a legitimate 7-footer, but tips the scales at just 215 pounds. Still, he is expected to combine with Maricevic (6-10, 240) and Stent (6-8, 220) to give the T-Birds an improved inside presence.
“We’re going to rely on those bigs a lot,” Russell said. “In the half court we’ll probably be a little bit more inside-oriented than we have been in the past.”
Casper College will welcome seven new players to the roster this season to help offset the loss of all five starters. Three of those players signed with Division I schools: Josh McSwiggan (University of Portland), Deante Strickland (Portland State) and Colin Russell (UC-Davis).
“Those guys aren’t going to be easy to replace,” Russell said, “but I feel pretty confident about the kids we’re bringing in. We’ve got some guys that are going to contribute right away.”
Those early contributors include DI transfers Ountae Campbell (Fresno State) and Chase Winchester (Stephen F. Austin). Campbell (6-4, 198) should occupy one of the wing spots while Winchester (6-0, 178) will run the point.
“Ountae is really good off the bounce and in transition,” Russell said. “And he’s super-athletic, so I think he’s going to help us with that.
“And Chase is really good in transition, he’s really good on ball screens, and he really shoots it. Chase is kind of a shooting guard in a point guard’s body.”
The T-Birds also went overseas to get some help with the addition of wings Zion Tordoff (6-8, 225) and Ayomikun Nuwe (6-5, 205), both of whom prepped at Myerscough College, a basketball academy in Prescott, England. Tordoff, the No. 2-rated player in England, averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds per game last season, while Nuwe pitched in 14 points and eight rebounds per contest.
“Zion plays above the rim and he’s super crafty,” Russell said. “He plays really hard and can score in a ton of different ways. He defends and he’s a big lefty.
“And Nuwe is super athletic, he’s good in transition and a really good finisher.
“We’re losing a ton of scoring, rebounding and assists, but all those guys will help us on the wings.”
The T-Birds also brought in Kelly Walsh grad Manny N’Tula, a 6-3 wing who helped lead the Trojans to the Class 4A state championship in March. Russell said N’Tula has been in the gym this summer getting up “1,500 3-pointers a day.”
Rounding out the roster are combo guard Damian Wilson Jr.; post Wilfried Likayi; redshirt freshman guard Blake Godwin from Sheridan; and sophomore guard Levy Mayunga-Miguel, who is currently playing for the Angola national team at the FIBA U19 World Cup in Egypt.
While Russell won’t fully know what to expect from this year’s team until the players get on campus in August, he thinks he and his staff – assistant coach Tyler Hurley and student assistant Tyler Olsen, both of whom are in their third years with the program – have put together a team that can challenge two-time defending Region IX champ Gillette College for conference supremacy.