THE Albury-Wodonga Bandits stand at a crossroads.
Go one way and a return to the South East Australian Basketball League playoffs beckons.
Go the other and another season of misery awaits, further grist for those who say the 2012 conference and league titles were nothing more than a fluke, the perfect case of a team getting hot at the right time and making the most of it.
A Cinderella season followed by a disastrous title defence that saw the Bandits miss the playoffs and lose a record four import players means many pundits have already dismissed Albury-Wodonga’s aspirations for 2014.
Injuries, poor recruiting, a perceived one-
dimensional offensive game plan and a defensive structure that went from elite to at times having the appearance of Swiss cheese were all negative elements that plagued the Bandits last year.
At least, these are the outside perceptions of the Border club; and for many, perceptions are, if not reality, then the next best thing.
But coach Brad Chalmers, while aware of how people outside the Bandits will judge his team purely on wins and losses, won’t be buying into external pressure.
“It’s a fair comment, as I said at the time, were we the best team in 2012? No,” Chalmers said.
“But we played some stretches where we played some fantastic basketball and the same thing happened last year with Dandenong.
“You get hot at the right time and you can run the table.
“But it’s such a competitive league now, the lowest win total was something like nine wins, so there’s not those easy wins there used to be.
“I can only operate internally; the external expectations, if people want to bag us if we don’t make the playoffs two years in a row then so be it.
“We’ve still got that banner and we’ve still got that championship.
“But we do want to make the playoffs, we’ve got that goal but it’s not going to be the key performance indicator for us, just a by-product of other things.”
Valid points all, and while the Bandits should be expected to always be, at the very least, competitive, Chalmers admitted they simply didn’t have the resources to load up on talent as the consistently elite teams did.
Perhaps if the Bandits had started Chalmers’ tenure with last season’s win-loss record, then observers would concede the Border outfit was on the right track after more than a decade in the wilderness.
But titles and early success tends to raise fans’ hopes exponentially — and Albury-Wodonga is no exception.
So the question has to be asked: Is the season a failure if the Bandits don’t return to the SEABL playoffs?
“No, not a failure, I think it’s a really competitive league,” Chalmers said.
“If you said every year was a failure if you didn’t make the playoffs (there would be a lot of failures) — our talent base is what it is.
“We don’t operate with the resources some of the other clubs do so our situation becomes one of being competitive and getting some respect back.
“I think we’ve got a bit of that back over the past two years, teams know they’ll get a tough contest from us every week now.
“We lost a number of close games last year; we could’ve had a better season record.
“We can all say that, but the results will be what they be.”
Having initially misfired with his recruiting last year, Chalmers hopes Jamar “Deuce” Briscoe, a 177-centimetre point guard from National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school University of Pikeville, will provide an efficient scoring and passing presence for the Border club.
Briscoe averaged 22.7 points, 3.6 rebounds,
2.5 assists and 2.1 steals in 2012-13, earning Mid-Coast Conference player of the year and All-NAIA first team honours.
“Deuce, I don’t have any expectations for him,” Chalmers said.
“One of the things I learned last year was the pressure on Eric (Vann) was enormous at the start, and he probably got overwhelmed by that.
“I just want Deuce to be himself, but he has to deliver what we’re after.
“I just expect him to play well and be a good teammate.
“Hopefully the numbers will be in the upper echelon; if you’ve got good imports then it just makes the world of difference.”
With Briscoe, returning pivot Momo Ntumba and new forward Alex Bogart-King — who replaces the departed Ben Hollis — the Bandits have a decidedly different feel to the team that finished with a less-than-stellar 11-17 record last year.
A fit and firing Ntumba is an intriguing prospect for the Bandits — and a frightening one for the rest of the league.
Bogart-King has made the step up from Big V club Hume City and while not expected to be the rebounding force Hollis was, it is thought he will provide far more offensive options.
In addition, the Bandits have added guard Sawyer Dearborn — son of former US star and coach Mark — who hopefully will provide some scoring punch off the bench.
Chalmers admitted his offensive strategy stagnated last year, overly reliant on imports who, at least in the early going, were either hampered by injury (Ntumba) or simply not up to the task at hand (Vann).
As a result, he has spent the off-season installing a new offence, one that relies on a multitude of options and better floor spacing.
Look for more individual creativity from all positions and less of a playmaking burden on Briscoe.
“We needed to get more options for other players,” Chalmers said.
“The past two years we didn’t really have offensive problems but we did rely on our key guys for baskets.
“What we’re doing now gives everyone more freedom to create for themselves.
“A bit more movement; I’ve always been a stickler for players to not be robotic, structure is good but not to death.
“Let’s create some thinking players, develop their basketball IQ, something that you just keep learning and that way you’re not waiting on young players to take five years to come on.”
A strong local and Australian contingent has always been a necessity and with club legend Nick Payne embarking on the final chapter of a glittering career, there is a subtle sense of urgency to ensure there are potential replacements waiting in the wings.
Club MVP Alex Opacic will again be an elite offensive threat, while Mick Watson, Jack Duck, Matt de Koeyer, Darcy Harding and Josh McKay will all be expected to provide complementary roles and to step up when needed.
Throw in talented Albury juniors Jacob Cincurak and Macgregor Cameron and local talent stocks haven’t looked this bright for some time.
“Going in this year, we want to improve; we played some decent basketball in the back half of last year and if we can continue that through the first half of the season that would be ideal,” Chalmers said.
“Most teams now aim for top three in the conference, to win more than half your games, that’s what our expectations are.
“On top of that, we just want to keep seeing some growth from the kids.
“Alex Opacic is a guy who I think isn’t that far away from an NBL spot; expansion might happen and he’s as talented as they come.
“Hopefully it’s a fun and enjoyable season; at times last year it was a real grind and credit to everyone.