Wyoming Indian Chiefs
The Wyoming Indian Chiefs gather at midcourt after their last practice before Christmas. (Ron Feemster – click to enlarge)

Wyoming Indian basketball plays deepest roster in years

by Ron Feemster
— December 26, 2013

As a traditional power in state 2A basketball, Wyoming Indian’s 6-0 start in early season games comes as no surprise. Nor is it unexpected that they would win big, taking every game so far by at least 34 points.

The most unusual element in this year’s mix of players is the emergence of Buell Robinson, a ninth grader starting at guard. Robinson comes from a long line of successful players, including his older sister, Tahnee Robinson, who plays professionally for Elizabeth-Basket Kirovograd in the Ukraine.

“I’ve been going to Jam On It basketball camp in Nevada since fifth grade,” the younger Robinson said. “I think I was ready to play at this level.”

Buell Robinson
Big sister Tahnee Robinson tweeted a shot of her brother, Buell, scoring for the Chiefs (click to enlarge)

Robinson originally planned to play for Lander Valley. But when Lander put him on a freshman team in summer scrimmages, he realized that he might be in for a long year.

“They weren’t really very good,” Robinson said. When the Wyoming Indian coaches Craig Ferris and Mike Hiwalker told him he might be good enough to be a freshman starter, Robinson asked his mother if he could transfer.

“She told me I could change schools,” Robinson said. “But she said it would be the only time. I’d have to stay at this school.” Buell’s mother, Sara Robinson, who is also the Eastern Shoshone tribal liaison to the governor’s office, could not have made a transfer rule that suits Ferris better.

Robinson enrolled in Wyoming Indian and started the year running cross-country on a team that included some of the basketball squad’s strongest players.  He was the fifth runner on a state championship team, and accepted the role gracefully.

“It’s a basketball cliché, but this team is truly an unselfish team,” Ferris said. “They play together very well. I think a lot of that chemistry starts with Buell. He works as hard as anyone on the team in practice.”

Ferris says this team has the longest bench he’s ever had. With more players capable of starting, the competition for significant minutes is fierce. Ferris credits his senior players, including starters Tristan Gardner, Joseph Howell and Trevor Williamson, with maintaining a team-first attitude.

“These seniors do an outstanding job of leading by example,” Ferris said. “They all worked their way up as role players. Now it’s their turn to shine.”

In Ferris and Hiwalker’s system, the varsity and junior varsity practice together. In five-on-five drills, starters and bench players rotate in and out and often play together on the same side. On many teams, the varsity plays as a unit against a team of reserves.

“We make sure that our JV players can run with the varsity at full speed,” Ferris said. “When it’s time for them to step up, they are ready.”

Robinson is so far the top scorer on the team this year, with a game high of 33 points against Big Horn Dec. 20. But on this deepest of rosters, senior Wilson Clifford could also get hot. A frequent starter on last year’s squad, Clifford scored 20 points coming off the bench against Northern Cheyenne in Billings, Mont. Williamson netted 24 in the same game.

Wilson Clifford
Wilson Clifford (Ron Feemster, WyoFile – click to enlarge)

The depth of the team can be disheartening for other teams, Ferris notes. When the Chiefs rotate in new players, the new team on the floor is just as fast and strong as the team that returns to the bench.

Clifford, who could easily resent the freshman upstart, loves being on the floor with Robinson. Nursing a strained Achilles in the locker room last week, he lamented having too little lift to dunk against Tongue River on Saturday. But he thinks he will get another chance, especially since Robinson likes to throw the alley-oop pass.

The Wyoming Indian team has yet to be challenged this season. Most of their wins have come by 40 points. But Ferris says there are still areas that need improvement, especially rebounding.

“We’re a fast-break team,” he said. “We need to get the ball, if we are going to start our fast break.”

Conditioning is a perennial hallmark of Wyoming Indian squads. The Chiefs run the floor constantly at full speed, rarely stopping to set up their half-court offense.

The team closes each practice with wind sprints.  At a recent practice, the players ran the width of the court five, 9 and 15 times, bending to touch the out-of-bound lines with their hands on each turn.

Ferris’s seniors were at the front of the pack, leading by example as the coach expects. And right behind them — when he wasn’t out front himself — was the freshman, Robinson.

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com or find him on Twitter@feemsternews.

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