First-year head coach Shaun Gutting knew his Casper College men’s basketball team might struggle at times early this season.
With just one player who was part of last year’s final rotation in sophomore point guard Jalen Harris, the Thunderbirds figured to take some time before getting all the pieces in place for another run at a Region IX championship.
“We still have things we have to figure out,” Gutting said. “There’s still a lot of learning going on right now.”
The T-Birds (6-2) were still ranked No. 14 in last week’s NCJAA Top 25 before a 115-110 overtime loss at Miles (Montana) Community College on Saturday. Casper College took a five-point lead late but the Pioneers tied the game and then took control in overtime.
Gutting said learning how to finish games is one of the things the T-Birds have to get better at.
“It was a tough loss, but it was a great learning experience,” he said. “We have to learn how to play with the lead, we have to learn how to start games better, things like that. But those are things these guys are going to have to figure out for themselves.”
Gutting is confident the T-Birds, who have lost two of four after a 4-0 start, will do just that. After all, sophomore guard David Walker and Harris both have the ability to drop 30 points on a given night. Walker, who recently signed with South Alabama, is averaging a team-high 20.3 points per game while Harris is at 19.9.
Walker recently returned to the lineup after missing a couple games with a knee injury. Harris, meanwhile, is averaging 35.0 minutes per game and leads the team with 4.7 assists per contest but is also averaging 3.4 turnovers per game.
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“Jalen is scoring it at a higher clip than he did last year,” Gutting said, “but we still want him to find a middle ground. We want him to get his assists up and cut down on the turnovers because he is the catalyst for what we’re trying to do.”
Sophomore big man Philip Pepple Jr. missed most of last year with a knee injury, but has returned to average 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Gutting expects the best is yet to come from the 6-foot-10 Pepple, however.
“He’s just starting to get his groove back,” Gutting said. “Coach (Lester) Stewart and I truly believe his best basketball will come in January and February. He just has to trust that things are OK with his knee.”
The T-Birds have a handful of other players capable of putting points on the board as five other players — sophomores Tavion Robinson and Isaiah Banks; and freshmen Donavan Freeman, Traizon Byrd and Dathan Satchell — are all averaging at least 6.4 points per game.
“We can score in a lot of ways,” Gutting said.
One of the next steps for the T-Birds, according to Gutting, is taking care of the basketball and locking down on the defensive end of the floor.
Casper College is averaging 13.8 turnovers per game and opponents are shooting 45.1 percent from the floor, including 34.6 percent from behind the arc.
The T-Birds will look to get back on track at the annual Thanksgiving Classic this weekend at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. Casper College hosts Colorado Northwestern Community College on Thursday, followed by McCook Community College on Friday and Dakota College on Saturday.
“These teams don’t have great records, but we have learned to take every opponent seriously,” Gutting said. “Right now, we have to minimize our mistakes and figure out ourselves and go from there.”
Follow sports editor Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN