It’s a bit of a smaller round in the NBL with just the six games but there’s no shortage of intrigue with the Illawarra Hawks unveiling their newest signing, the New Zealand Breakers and Cairns Taipans looking to continue their roll, and the Perth Wildcats and Adelaide 36ers out to make a statement.
Round 8 in the NBL begins on Thursday night and wraps up on Monday but there’s just the one day of double-headers on Sunday.
The round gets underway out west on Thursday night with another chapter in the league’s longest running rivalry with the Perth Wildcats at home to the Adelaide 36ers.
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There’s then the stand-alone clash on Friday with the two great surprise packets of the season locking horns in Far North Queensland with the Cairns Taipans hosting the New Zealand Breakers.
There’s also just the one game on Saturday night and it’s two teams needing a win to try and keep pace with the top teams as Melbourne United hosts the Tasmania JackJumpers in a rematch of last season’s semi-final match up.
The lone double-header of the round takes place on Sunday starting with the New Zealand Breakers facing yet another quick turnaround to come back home to play the fresh and waiting Brisbane Bullets.
Second up on Sunday is the South East Melbourne Phoenix taking on the Illawarra Hawks before on Monday night the Cairns Taipans are at home to the Sydney Kings.
Breakers surge to down 36ers | 00:58
COTTON EMBRACES MORE HELP AFTER PLAYERS MEETING
It can’t be a coincidence that after a players-only meeting following a fifth straight loss that the Perth Wildcats haven’t lost, Bryce Cotton isn’t being asked to exhaust himself and Brady Manek has led the charge to provide him more support.
Things were threatening to implode at the Wildcats when they suffered a fifth consecutive loss prior to the FIBA break. It was the first time in 17 years they had suffered such an indignity with three of those defeats coming inside The Jungle.
If what was happening on the court wasn’t enough, the local newspaper was having a field day throwing the second-year ownership group, SEN, under the bus and ridiculing chief executive Craig Hutchison as they voiced the opinions of a minority of members venting their spleens.
The Wildcats had one last chance to turn things around going into that break, but only with one day off in between. However, before taking on Adelaide on the Saturday, the players got together for a heart to heart meeting.
It clearly worked. The ‘Cats came out and won in Adelaide the next night with Manek stepping up to hit six threes for a career-best 25 points while triple MVP winner Cotton was able to put the icing on the cake with 13 fourth quarter points.
The difference with Cotton having the energy for that after not having to carry the load for the first three quarters was stark.
Then last Thursday the Wildcats held out the South East Melbourne Phoenix to win at RAC Arena for the first time since October 8 and suddenly they have momentum and self-belief again.
Cotton had been doing all he could and is having another MVP calibre season with 22.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game, but he needed support.
He’s received that the last two games not only from Manek who has put up 46 points across the wins, but Jesse Wagstaff with 18, Luke Travers 13, Todd Blanchfield 13, TaShawn Thomas 16, and most significantly Corey Webster with 28.
Cotton credits the meeting between the players for the turnaround and is relishing the extra support he’s getting on the back of it.
“We had a pretty good players only meeting the day before the Adelaide game, and I feel like it’s brought us good momentum so hopefully we can keep it rolling,” Cotton told SEN.
“It started off with nobody really wanting to say anything, but after a couple of guys opened up just a little bit, it kind of gave everybody the confidence to share what was on their mind whether it had something to do with basketball or something else going on in their own head.
“We really, really benefited from it and we didn’t even really talk a whole lot about basketball. It was more just about instilling with each other that we believe in each other, and we back each other through the highs and lows.
“I think some guys just needed to hear that and now just feel and look a lot more confident out there for it.”
Emotional moment NBL player comes out | 03:00
MAYBE THE 36ERS DON’T NEED A REPLACEMENT AT ALL
Since the departure of enigmatic point guard Craig Randall from the Adelaide 36ers the talk has all surrounded who his replacement should be, but maybe it would be better off being if it’s required at all.
Coming into the season, it was widely thought the 36ers had the most talent to work with in the league. That was on the back of adding the three imports, Randall, Antonius Cleveland and Robert Franks, to a team with a strong core of local talent.
That includes captain Mitch McCarron, seven-time club MVP Daniel Johnson and the more than handy Sunday Dech, Anthony Drmic, Kai Sotto, and then waiting in the wings Hyrum Harris, Kyrin Galloway and Nick Marshall.
The biggest problem when Randall was there was that despite his 20.3 points a game, he was also taking 15 shots and the rest of the talented roster wasn’t involved enough.
That has not been the case in the three games they’ve now played without Randall. McCarron is having a much great impact as the point guard, both Dech and Drmic are playing greater roles, and Cleveland is actually becoming a factor where he can use his athletic gifts.
Most importantly, Franks is now actually being used like he can be one of the best bigs in the league, the same at times with Johnson and Sotto, and they are looking a more cohesive unit.
Their defence remains a work in progress, but also showed signs of improvement last weekend in their win over Melbourne United and loss to the New Zealand Breakers.
The Sixers look to be a team now finding their identity. They are short on talent either because a team where you McCarron and Dech sharing the playmaking roles, Cleveland and Drmic as your wings, and then Franks and Johnson up front backed up by Sotto isn’t lacking for anything.
There is the potential that bringing in a new import, especially a point guard if they look for a like-for-like replacement for Randall completely upsets that building chemistry and balance once again on a team that’s already shown is somewhat delicate.
Despite that, Sixers coach CJ Bruton appears committed to bringing in a new player even though he won’t be signed ahead of Thursday’s clash in Perth against the Wildcats.
“It will depend on how we continue to play and how our group responds. We need to find the right guy who fits our team and can help us,” Bruton said.
“Ultimately you can look at it many ways and I know most coaches and fans are from the outside, and those who love the sport will continue to do that and dissect it. But you will hear about it when I know and when I tell the boys, and our club announces our decision.”
Williams tees off on Randall II | 01:53
HAWKS FIND IMMEDIATE REPLACEMENT
The Illawarra Hawks wasted no time replacing injured import George King and what they found was a virtual like-for-like replacement, but if that best suits what they needed remains to be seen.
The Hawks appear to be copping it on all fronts at the moment and that might be natural for a team on an eight-game losing run to be 1-9 and with a rookie coach feeling the pinch.
However, Jacob Jackomas hasn’t deserved to deal with some of what’s out of his control and that’s included season-ending injuries to imports Justin Robinson and George King, and then the pot shots taken at the Hawks from former players and others through the media.
The crowd numbers aren’t great and it’s natural in a way to question the future of the Hawks in the Illawarra, but the ownership and the NBL remain committed to keeping them there.
What was more in Jackomas’ control was the type of player he wanted to replace King who has now returned to the United States.
He was hardly setting the world alight anyway with just 10.7 points a game but what did appear plain to see was that if the Hawks were to replace him, they likely needed someone who provided something a little different.
They have plenty in the backcourt already with Tyler Harvey and Peyton Siva while Lachie Dent, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, Tim Coenraad, Davo Hickey and Alex Mudronja could all combine to keep the backcourt and wing spots in check.
The Hawks were missing a big body who could be a physical presence. A four or five man who could be a force, crash the boards, be a strong defensive player in the paint and then most importantly set some screens to get the shooters better looks.
The injury to King appeared to open the door for the Hawks to find that type of player, but in fairness to them, on short notice they elected to go with the best player they could find and get in to the team quickly.
That’s where Michael Frazier came into the fold. He had a horror time at the Perth Wildcats last season where the club made it clear they wanted to replace him, even brought in his replacement that didn’t eventuate because John Brown III was never cleared in time.
Frazier showed terrific strength of character through that time to rededicate himself to playing out the season and he is a player who belongs in the NBL.
He gives the Hawks another scoring threat and someone who is a good athlete and who is a strong body, but the fact remains he is a backcourt player or at best, a wing.
In all reality, he is a perfect replacement for King but not necessarily to suit what the team needed the most.
That’s the way former Hawks forward Cody Ellis sees it, but he’s also happy to see Frazier back in the NBL.
“I was a little bit confused. If you were trying to bring in someone to directly replace King, then he’s a perfect fit,” Ellis said.
“An absolute perfect fit but I don’t think that’s what the team needs. I do think they need another big screen setter and someone who can pick and pop in that big spot. Someone to get some rebounds just to help Sam (Froling) out more than anything.
“So I was a little confused at the announcement because I thought this was their perfect opportunity to get someone like that. In saying that, I’m happy Frazier’s back in the league because I think he deserves to be.
“After everything he went through last season and how he handled it all, it was something similar to what I went through and he handled it just amazingly.
“I’m glad he’s back in the league, I just don’t think he fits what they need, but again if they were looking for a like-for-like, then they’ve probably hit the nail on the head.
“The other big thing for him is to come in and be a defensive leader, I think that’s what he needs to do. If he can do that, he’s proved his worth straight away.”
BREAKERS CONTINUE TO DEFY IT ALL TO BE CONTENDERS
Following a horror two years away from home, the New Zealand Breakers have once again had the toughest run in terms of travel and schedule so far this season, but despite that they just continue to win and impress, and aren’t interested in excuses.
The Breakers were the team hardest hit by far by COVID the last two seasons spending the majority of both based out of Australia. Things haven’t got a whole lot easier for them so far this season, which was only magnified last weekend.
Following the FIBA break, New Zealand took on the Tasmania JackJumpers on Friday night in Launceston. It took the team three quarters of the day to get there and there was a point the game was in danger of being postponed.
However, there were no excuses from this Breakers team and they took care of business winning 84-76 and then having to quickly try to get home to host the waiting Adelaide 36ers on Sunday.
That was easier said than done with New Zealand not returning to Auckland until 3am on Sunday. They were then back together at the stadium by 1pm to prepare for the game that afternoon.
Once more, while they could have made excuses and they would have been widely accepted, they just got down to business, toughed out another win with Dererk Pardon again dominant and Barry Brown Jr catching fire late in the piece.
That means the Breakers have now won five of their past six matches to sit in second spot at 8-3 and there’s no question they’ve been thrown the most challenging schedule so far in #NBL23.
What’s most impressive about this team is the chemistry they’ve developed and the attitude they are displaying all stems from their first-year coach Mody Maor.
Things are again thrown at them this week. They had three days at home before flying to Cairns to prepare to face the Taipans on Friday and once again their opponents, this time the Brisbane Bullets, will already be in Auckland waiting for them ahead of Sunday’s clash.
The last thing Maor is interested in doing is making excuses and his team is playing just like that no-excuse outfit.
“We’re good. It’s a challenge we embrace and this is not something we have to do, it’s something we get to do,” Maor said.
“We get to compete against tough teams in tough circumstances, and this is how we grow, how we build and get better. We’ve been through exactly the same stretch in the beginning of the season with three back-to-backs in-a-row with travel so we’re kind of experienced with it.
“Our guys know what to expect and we know how to prepare, and Cairns is a phenomenal team. Brisbane is a phenomenal team so they are going to be a challenge and we relish those challenges.”
BRAZILIAN KING EMBRACES CHALLENGE MINUS COOKS
There might be no more influential all-round player in the NBL than reigning grand final MVP Xavier Cooks, but Brazilian big man Tim Soares is up for stepping up further in his absence for the Sydney Kings.
The absence of Cooks in the Kings line-up was felt significantly on Sunday against the Illawarra Hawks where they only sneaked away with a win at the buzzer thanks to a Shaun Bruce three-pointer.
Without Cooks, the Kings did appear lacking a bit of that leadership and guidance, didn’t have someone to provide the energy to everything they did, and that’s understandable given he’s the reigning grand final MVP, a genuine MVP threat and has Boomers roles and potentially the NBA in his near future.
The Kings still escaped with the win without him but they will again miss him on Monday night for the trip to Cairns to face the Taipans and covering him there is going to be significantly more of a challenge.
The Cairns frontcourt could very well be the best in the league led by Keanu Pinder and supported by Sam Waardenburg, DJ Hogg and Majok Deng.
Suddenly the Kings look a little thin in that regard minus Cooks and it’s Tim Soares, Jordan Hunter and former Taipan Kouat Noi who are going to have to carry the load.
It’s time for Brazilian big man Soares to take on extra responsibility. He has just returned from playing with the Brazilian national team for the second time and enjoyed that challenge, but has already noticed the difference in game style back in the NBL.
He certainly won’t be finding mismatches against Pinder or Waardenburg or Monday night, but what he needs to do is ensure the Kings bigs don’t get significantly outplayed by those from the Taipans if they are to make it 18 consecutive road victories.
“I think at the international level it’s just more about winning and very important to represent your country well, and you do the best you can and the games all revolve more around mismatches,” Soares told SEN.
“That can depend on who you have on your rosters and our coach was very fond at going at mismatches so whoever had the mismatch was who had the ball in the hands the most.
“I think that’s a good way to play basketball and that’s the main difference in going from the Kings to going to play for my national team, Brazil.”