BASKETBALL is back in Wollongong and it'll be worth the wait, with Illawarra to take on Melbourne United in their return to the WIN Entertainment Centre next Wednesday.
The clash at the WEC will potentially pit two undefeated sides against each other, with the clubs currently one and two on the ladder and yet to suffer a defeat this season.
Both would need to come through their round-four clashes with South East Melbourne and Perth respectively, but a showdown between the league's only two undefeated teams would be the biggest regular-season clash in Wollongong in a number of years.
The Hawks will also play a derby against arch-rivals Sydney at Qudos Bank Arena next Sunday in the second outing of round five prior to the NBL Cup.
Having been on the road since Christmas, coach Brian Goorjian has made no secret of his desire to see his 4-0 team in action on its home floor but, with the month-long NBL Cup looming, the window looked to be closing.
Capacity is yet to be determined, though it will fall in line with government health protocols, but the Illawarra faithful will get to see their team in action in the flesh before they shift south.
"With COVID there's been so many different scenarios, but one of them has always been they wanted to get a home game here before we went to the [Melbourne] hub," Goorjian said.
"That's been loud and clear while we were in Albury, while we were in Cairns, the club was working tirelessly to get that done but there's all this stuff spinning around that you have no control over so you don't put your emotions there.
"I just kept thinking a day's coming where this place is going to be buzzing and we're going to be in it. There's been talk about it but we really had no feel that this was going to take place. Then all of a sudden we've got the news. It only really hit me today but I'm excited and I know the team's excited.
"A lot of these guys were walking in here for the first time [this week] and I've competed in it but this has never been my home. It always made me nervous coming down here, the environment was always special.
"I keep talking about the product and the product will be on display for the first time on Wednesday night on our home court and we'll be playing, regardless of records, the best team that's played in the league for a long while."
The Hawks won't be looking past South East Melbourne, who they'll face in the southern capital on Sunday, but it certainly hasn't escaped Goorjian's attention just how talent-stacked United are this season
"I've followed the comments they've made within their own team that they feel they can go undefeated this year and, when you look at that team play and when you look at them on paper, it's as talented a team I'll be coaching against in my time," Goorjian said.
"It presents a real challenge. I haven't been caught up in the [undefeated] records, I just know when the thing started everyone was thinking this Melbourne team, once they signed Jock [Landale], was going to be special.
"I go game by game and I'm not thinking we're 4-0 and on top of the ladder, I'm more thinking we're playing well and we've got to keep this momentum going. [Being in] first place hasn't even entered my mind, what's on my mind is that it's a really big challenge."
Two games in four days, with a return trip to Melbourne thrown in, will be a tough ask but Goorjian says his squad will maintain it's one game at a time mentality - particularly against a Phoenix team fresh off a boil-over road win against Perth.
"We've planted that message and there's so many games this season and every game's important," Goorjian said.
"You want to do everything you can one game at a time to give yourself the best chance to make these playoffs. You look at the league this year and I keep saying, I don't know who's going to finish last, who's there that's an automatic win?
"It's one game at a time and that game counts as the same amount of points as the one does at home. There's no doubt that, when [the Phoenix] game finishes, there's going to be an energy about coming into this building for the first time and it's going to be how you deal with emotion.
"There's going to be a lot flowing through the body, I know there is in mine and I know there is in players. I think the focus is going to be where they generate that and put that energy because it'll be running through everybody's veins."
The changing circumstances underline the value of a pair of wins over both Brisbane and Cairns on a road trip that began on Boxing Day and only ended with a return to Wollongong on Friday last week.
"I was really just hoping we could split that road trip," Goorjian admitted.
"You want to stay in the picture and you want to go into that hub where the games matter, you don't want to be way down at the bottom and fighting for your life. You want those game to be important and you want to be in it.
"To come out of that thing 4-0 is why I was so pumped up after that last game because I thought, in that last game, we were very vulnerable. To get that win and be able to come home and step off the plane, it's a lot different being 4-0 to being 3-1."