Danny Robison and Brady Gustafson have known for years what Class AA opponents are finding out the hard way -- they're tough to stop.
"We've played together since eighth grade ... before that we were always on different traveling teams," said Robison. "We were always the biggest guys out there, so it was always like a big showdown whenever we played Brady's team."
These days, Robison and Gustafson are teammates at Billings West, the No. 1-ranked team in Class AA boys basketball. The 6-foot-8 seniors no longer have to defend each other in games, but they still square off in practice.
"It was tough guarding Danny back then (in the traveling team days), and it still is," said Gustafson. "Most big guys don't really have an outside shot, but he does. It was that way back when we were younger, too."
"I still have a hard time guarding Brady," added Robison. "He's always been stronger than me ... he's so much stronger than he looks. He's always been tough to stop when he gets the ball close to the basket."
Robison and Gustafson are the lone returning starters from last year's West team, which went 17-6 and lost to Bozeman in the State AA championship game. This year's Golden Bears are off to a 7-1 start, with their first loss coming Tuesday night at Bozeman by a 56-52 score.
Robison averaged 9.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game last year, while Gustafson averaged 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds. Their numbers have increased across the board this season as they've taken charge as West's team leaders.
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After putting in hundreds of hours of work since the end of last season, Robison has emerged as one of the state's best players -- joining the likes of Missoula Sentinel's Riley King and Corvallis' Riley Bradshaw on the short list for that distinction.
Robison is averaging 19.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game this season, and he also consistently puts numbers in the blocked shots, assists and steals columns on the stat sheet. Outside of a lopsided win over Miles City in which he played less than half the game, Robison has scored at least 18 points in every game this season.
"At the end of last season, I felt like my defense and rebounding were not great, but pretty good," said Robison. "So I really worked on making myself more of an offensive threat. I worked a lot on my post game and my perimeter shot because I knew the team would need more scoring from me this year."
Doug Robison, Danny's father and the West head coach, said his son made good use of his offseason workouts.
"Danny really did work hard last summer," he said. "He wasn't just going to the gym and shooting around -- he put in a lot of constructive time. He worked a lot on his own and with his older brother (Shane) and with Adam Leachman, a physical therapist here in town.
"Adam helped him a lot with his agility and speed, and Danny put on 20 or 25 pounds in the weight room."
Danny Robison would like to follow in his brother's path by winning a state championship as a senior -- Shane was a member of West's title team in 2007.
Danny is also emulating his brother in other areas, such as big hair.
"Yeah, I guess he's kind of my role model when it comes to hair," laughed Danny. "Shane's hair is pretty long right now. He's got the long, straight hair and I've got the big curly afro.
"I know my dad wants me to cut it, but I want to keep it going until the season is over. It makes me look taller, so hopefully that intimidates some guys."
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Though basketball is not his primary sport -- West's all-time leading passer is headed to Missoula to play quarterback for the Griz -- Gustafson has also improved his game since last season.
Splitting time between football and basketball camps last summer, Gustafson said he played "as much basketball as I could."
"I did a lot of lifting, too," he added. "That's helped me more in basketball than it did for football. I feel a lot more comfortable in the post this year ... a lot more confident."
Gustafson, who's averaging 8.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season, said the key for the Golden Bears is to use the size advantage that they enjoy over nearly every opponent.
"We try to incorporate our strengths," he said. "We're a lot bigger than other teams, so we want to take advantage of that. We have some great guards, too ... the more we can get from me and Danny in the post, the more open shots our guards will have.
"We feel like we have the team to win a championship. That's definitely our goal, especially after coming so close last year. We're still taking it one game at a time and trying to keep improving ... if we do that, we'll have a chance to be where we want at the end of the season."
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Doug Robison said his two big men exemplify the leadership of this year's senior class, which also includes Clay Compton, Nate Smith, Brandon McIver and Pat Barnett.
"Brady and Danny are great leaders for us, and they're really indicative of all of this year's seniors," he said. "They're exceptional students, athletes and leaders in the school.
"They're just good kids. They know what their job is on the team ... they work hard and they support each other whether things are going well or not."