2013 has arrived and the first biggest event of the British Basketball calendar year draws near as Newcastle Eagles take on the Leicester Riders, for the second consecutive major final, in the BBL Cup.
No team understands the feeling of winning a title more than the Eagles and history is on the side of the most successful team in British Basketball. However, the Riders are resurgent and having been led to their best season last year they are once again competing well in the Championship.
The two coaches can already be regarded as BBL icons with Fabulous Flournoy living up to his name by being at the helm of Newcastle’s rise to greatness while Rob Paternostro has won most games in charge of the Riders; clocking up over 100 wins since taking the reins in 2008.
Flournoy’s Newcastle side have won it all and their second ‘clean sweep’ of all four trophies last season reiterated their dominance in the BBL. Despite their success, the victory over Plymouth twelve months ago was only their second BBL Cup crown, since the tournament began in 2003, having first won the competition in 2006. In comparison, their 2013 opponents have never previously competed in this final and the wait for a trophy entered a twelfth successive campaign following a defeat to Newcastle in the final of the BBL Trophy last May.
The two teams have met twice before in a final with Newcastle winning on both occasions whilst achieving the ‘clean sweep’ which could prove ominous for the rest of the league should the North-East club prevail on January 13th.
One of the keys to the success of Newcastle is their ability to retain their key stars. Many teams struggle to keep hold of players with the lure of Europe too appealing but the Eagles have managed to secure the services of the likes of Joe Chapman, Charles Smith, Darius Defoe and Flournoy himself for a number of seasons.
Leicester have four BBL rookies in their squad along with a handful of youngsters plying their trade with Loughborough University. However, in GB captain Drew Sullivan, Leicester have one of the most experienced British players with eleven winners medals to his name from his time at Newcastle and more recently Mersey. Barry Lamble is in his seventh season with the club, Anthony Rowe has enjoyed several seasons with Plymouth and Yorrick Williams made his league debut in 1994 during which time the 37 year-old has amassed over 6,000 points.
The Riders may not match the trophy haul of the Eagles but they do in terms of league experience and they also have the head-to-head advantage in the league..
In front of the Sky Sports cameras for the first televised game of the season, Leicester travelled to Newcastle and stunned the champions in front of their home fans. The oldest BBL club pulled off a 75-63 victory as they began the season with an 8-0 record. The loss was the first in the league for the Eagles and they have gone on to win nine of their next ten games to take a four point cushion into the new year albeit having played two extra games.
As a result, five players have scored over 200 points in the league this season for Newcastle while Slovakian international, Pavol Losonsky leads the Riders in scoring with 209 points. Smith has an average of 17.4 points per game for the league leaders while Chapman tops the charts in assists (83) and Kareem Maddox pulls down an average of 9.8 boards per game; a factor which helped him claim the Molten BBL Player of the Month award for November.
The final clash pits the second best offensive team in the league against the best defensive side in the league with Leicester only conceding an average of 70.1 points per game while Newcastle score 87.1 points on average. No players have attempted more shots from beyond the arc than Chapman and Huffman and the backcourt duo are in the top five for three-pointers made helping Newcastle to an overall percentage of 35 from long range while Leicester are below the 30% mark.
The Riders will want to keep Smith off the free throw line as the 37 year-old boasts an impressive 84% success rate from the foul line while Sullivan has had 74 attempts (5th most in the league). Both players have had minor injuries to contend with in the last few weeks causing them to miss games. Rowe has proved a worthy replacement to the impressive John Fraley; (ruled out for the season with a serious knee injury) averaging 20.3 ppg in three league appearances so far.
Both teams began their journey to Birmingham at the quarter-final stage courtesy of their respective finishes in the league last season. Newcastle began their title defence with a 107-85 home win against Worcester while Leicester scored an important 90-74 win on the road at their rivals, London Lions. The semi-finals saw contrasting victories with the Riders easing to a 165-115 aggregate success against Sheffield while Newcastle had to battle through overtime to get past Plymouth and seal a 190-181 victory.
Sullivan has had a strong Cup campaign so far; averaging 14.3ppg as well as 8.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists and the Riders will be looking for another all-round performance in the final. Huffman averages an impressive 24 points in the three Eagles games so far with Smith contributing 21ppg and Newcastle will hope the 2012 Cup Final MVP will be fully fit for the showdown with Leicester having only just returned from a calf strain.
Newcastle and Leicester both safely secured their passage through to the quarter-finals of the BBL Trophy on the last weekend of 2012 and the Eagles do not have a scheduled competitive game before the cup final. Meanwhile, Paternostro’s side could draw level at the top of the championship with two upcoming games including a live game, on SkySports, away to the London Lions next Tuesday.
It’s difficult to predict a winner but also difficult to look beyond the impressive track record of the Eagles when it comes to finals. 12/16 victories in domestic finals since 2005 is no mean feat but Leicester have already proved that they have found a winning formula against Newcastle this season.