The Wollongong Hawks are in Melbourne tomorrow, chasing a crucial win on the road to stay in touch with the play-off contenders.
After struggling early on, the Hawks have climbed off the canvas with three wins in their past four games, including a stunning upset against the Kings in Sydney.
While there is a long road ahead, Illawarra Mercury basketball writer TIM KEEBLE outlines five reasons the Hawks can still have a say in the 2013-14 NBL title race.
1 The McLeod Factor
Gordie is still one of the best coaches - if not THE best - in the NBL. Some coaches might work as hard, but none work harder than McLeod. He thinks about basketball when he wakes up, thinks about it at work and thinks about it when he's falling asleep. Gordie rode his players endlessly when the Hawks were struggling in the first two months of the season. They responded with three wins in their past four games and lost the fourth to second-placed Adelaide by a point. He occasionally looks like he might blow a gasket on the sideline, but McLeod's preparation and analytical breakdown of opponents is second to none. The banner at Hawks games says it all: 'In Gord We Trust'.
2 They will peak at the right time
The Hawks are improving and growing in confidence with every game while others around them are slipping. Rebound totals have risen and turnovers are down - two glaring weaknesses which were at the root of their earlier losing woes. McLeod is constantly working on ways to get the best out of imports Rotnei Clarke and Kevin Tiggs and the pair grow more comfortable and confident every day. Perhaps the most notable improvement Wollongong have made lately has been at the defensive end, an area which has usually been a strong point during McLeod's five-year reign. They caused Sydney no end of problems in two recent wins, despite making just 37.5 per cent of their shots over both games. It was a timely reminder for the Hawks that swarming defence is sometimes the only weapon you need.
3 Three-point shooting
Earlier in the year they were living and dying from the perimeter, but the interior scoring has increased, thanks largely to the work being done by hard-nosed veteran Dave Gruber. The return of centre Larry Davidson from injury has also helped.
But the league is thin on dominant big men and teams can't have enough long-range shooters. The Hawks have plenty, including a couple of the nation's deadliest in Clarke and Oscar Forman, and McLeod gives them the green light to bomb away. They might need a little more in their offensive arsenal to win the title, but they're good enough to shoot their way into the final four.
4 Luck will be on their side with injuries
It HAS to be after last season's nightmare. Injuries will still play a part at some stage. Indeed, Davidson's recent absence for four games prompted a few 'here-we-go-again' reactions, while rookie guard Dom Cooks is out indefinitely with a knee injury. But surely the curse is lifting. Last season the Hawks lost their starting guards to serious knee injuries in the same game. Two weeks later they lost starting forward Glen Saville for the season, also to a knee injury. Tim Coenraad missed the first half of the season with a foot injury and Tyson Demos sat out games with a knee problem. That won't happen this season. The odds are with Wollongong staying relatively healthy.
5 Experience, chemistry and good ol' fashioned guts
Despite all the aforementioned injury issues, the Hawks defied the odds to claim third spot last season. Time and again they are written off and more often than not they silence the doubters. Hawks haters were chuckling when they lost six of their first seven games, but the coaches and players kept their heads down and didn't lose faith. More importantly, they didn't lose patience with each other and play the blame game. The results have started coming and they are over the worst part of the 28-game schedule. They still have a lot of work to do, but McLeod will keep cracking the whip and keep his players aiming high.