It would be understandable if the Casper College men’s basketball team is a little rusty when it takes the floor Saturday against the Wyoming All-Stars at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym. After all, the T-Birds haven’t played since Dec. 15 — a 113-90 victory over Rexburg United.
Head coach Dan Russell believes his team will be ready, though.
“This group has a better understanding of what we want from them,” he said. “They have more of a sense of urgency. They have some technical things that they forgot, but that’s the tough thing with the JUCO break being so long.”
Saturday’s game will serve as a tune-up for the start of Region IX North conference play, which begins Wednesday when Casper College hosts Central Wyoming College. The T-Birds are currently 15-1 and ranked No. 11 in the latest National Junior College Athletics Association Top 25 poll.
“We’re sitting 11th in the country and these guys believe they have a real shot at winning a Region IX championship,” Russell said. “So it’s created an attitude that we have to take ownership.”
That hasn’t been a problem so far. The T-Birds are averaging 106.0 points per game and have topped the century mark 11 times, including in five of the past six games. Six players are scoring in double figures, led by 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Isaac Bonton’s 19.8 points per game.
And 6-9 sophomore forward Wilfried Likayi, the team’s second-leading scorer at 17.3 ppg, is expected to return to the lineup next week after missing nearly two months with a leg injury.
In Likayi’s absence, 6-8 sophomore Zion Tordoff and 7-1 redshirt sophomore James Hampshire filled in admirably, averaging a combined 16.4 points and 13.8 rebounds.
“I think if it wasn’t for those guys we probably wouldn’t have gone 6-0 without Wil,” Russell said. “And I think it will help us in the long run. We’re just trying to get Wil back into shape as soon as we can. It’s good that he’s back, though, because he’s one of the best bigs in the country.”
The return of Likayi, along with a core group of seasoned sophomores, could be enough to propel the T-Birds to their first Region IX championship in 22 years. Not only are the T-Birds scoring points in bunches, but they are limiting teams to 31.7 percent shooting and have a 21.6 rebounding margin.
“We’ve got long, athletic guys who know what it takes to play at this level,” Russell said. “And they played for good defensive coaches, so we didn’t have to start over from scratch.
“The majority of us scoring points has been because of our defensive effort,” he added. “And we’ve been able to contest shots with better effort to create misses, and then gang rebound and get out and go.”
While the T-Birds defeated No. 7 Salt Lake Community College earlier this year and suffered their only loss to No. 13 College of Southern Idaho, Russell knows the schedule will get tougher once conference play opens.
“I told them last night we haven’t seen a lot of adversity yet, and we’re about to see some adversity when we get into conference,” he said. “I think the conference is deeper than it was last year. But we’re deep enough and talented enough that I think this group is up to the task.”