It’s not enough that the Casper College men’s basketball team won eight of its first nine games by an average margin of 37.6 points. Head coach Dan Russell has fears those heavy handed wins could result in complacency. He wants the Thunderbirds to struggle.
Russell said he expected Eastern Wyoming College to give the T-Birds a test on Saturday night in the finale of the Foss Motors Thanksgiving Classic at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. He hoped that game would have tested the T-Birds like the 108-101 win two weeks ago over preseason No. 8 Salt Lake Community College. Or the 105-103 loss to No. 3 College of Southern Idaho the following night — a near-upset that Russell still has regrets about.
“Should have won,” he said. “We beat Southern Idaho until the final minute, they went down and we didn’t make very good decisions late.”
CSI outscored the T-Birds 58-43 in the second half to avoid the upset.
It’s also not enough for the T-Birds to stand No. 10 in the country with 50.4 rebounds per game and No. 6 in scoring with 106.4 per game. No, their head coach wants them to play paranoid.
“We can’t get lackadaisical,” Russell said after watching the T-Birds score a season-high 130 points in Friday’s rout of Dakota College. “We need to prepare every day in practice or shootaround whether we’re playing a Southern Idaho or we’re playing a Salt Lake that it’s like we’re playing for a Region IX Championship. We need to keep our eyes on the prize.”
All of that comes from a head coach who hasn’t been phased by the 8-1 start to the season or the fight shown against ranked programs. Or even by buzz floated out that his T-Birds could make an appearance in the first in-season NJCAA rankings when they are released on Dec. 4.
“I think this team is capable of that,” Russell said of the hot start. “With our talent, our guys we have on the wings, our bigs and our point-guard play.”
It’s that depth, talent at all five starting positions and others waiting on the bench, that has Russell optimistic about the T-Birds’ chances this season. Going into Saturday’s game against Eastern Wyoming College, the T-Birds had four players averaging double-digit points. However, they were without one of them for that game.
Sophomore Wilfried Likayi, the T-Birds’ leading scorer at 17.3 per game, injured his left foot in Friday’s win. Likayi scored 18 in the first half against Bottineau but spent the second half on the bench. He was on the bench in full sweats and a walking boot for Saturday’s game. That still left sophomore Isaac Bonton (15.6 points per game), sophomore Braxton Bertolette (13.9) and sophomore Amin Adamu (12.8) on the court.
Numbers like that could have been expected for one of the top scoring teams in the country. It’s been ball control and rebounding that has truly made the difference for the T-Birds thus far.
Bonton leads the team with 5.0 assists per game, but teammates Broc Finstuen (4.5), Jalen Harris (4.2) and Bryton Bissainthe (4.0) aren’t far behind. Then there’s been Likayi (6.8 rebounds), Zion Tordoff (6.7) and Finstuen (6.3) crashing the boards.
“A lot of it is freedoms and we’ve got guys who can make plays,” Russell said. “Bonton is a great passer and great scorer, Amin Adamu, we’ve got a ton of guys who can score a ton of points.
“We’ve just been trying to show as much film as we can on critiquing our fast pace and what’s a good shot, what’s an average shot. What’s a good pass, what’s a bad pass and all that stuff.”
Those are the things that one-sided games can gloss over. Good passes and good shots come at more of a premium in tight games, which the T-Birds just haven’t been in. In order for them to accomplish their ultimate goal this year, they’ll need to know the difference.
And with just a few games remaining before Region IX play starts, the T-Birds don’t have much time to learn from 30-point victories. That’s why Russell hopes these birds play paranoid.
“With the margin of victory that we’ve had lately, it looks nice and sounds great and everything but it’s not always going to be that way,” Russell said. “We’ve got to keep the foot on the gas pedal for sure.”