Newcastle Eagles will once again start off as favourites against the Plymouth Raiders when the two teams meet in January for the BBL Cup final.
The same was said as well in early 2007, when these two clubs locked horns in Newcastle’s old backyard in the Trophy Final.
Plymouth defied the odds, coming away with a 74-65 win, winning their first bit of BBL silverware since joining the league in 2004.
Since then, Plymouth have settled as a ‘mid-table’ team in the league. They have reached the post-season playoffs with the exception of the 2009-10 season, and the Raiders have appeared in the 2009 Cup final, only to be humiliated 103-49 by the Everton Tigers, in what was the largest margin victory recorded for a BBL final.
In the league, Plymouth have never really troubled the title-chasers, due mainly to their inconsistent away form, and they seem to carry that pattern into the domestic Cup and Trophy competitions.
However, Plymouth’s away form in this year’s Cup competition has been perfect. Three wins from three (Durham, Sheffield and Worcester). Their one and only home tie was a near-meaningless second leg where they lost to Worcester Wolves, 89-82. But they already had the game effectively won due to a 111-83 first leg victory.
Despite a strong roster for this upcoming season, which includes the addition of last year’s BBL regular season MVP Jeremy Bell during the early stages, Plymouth sit in sixth position, already ten points adrift of the leaders, Newcastle – but have games in hand on all teams.
The key for Plymouth is their inside game. They have a number of players who can penetrate and score under the basket. Anthony Rowe, Tomas Janusauskas, Lehmon Colbert, Paul Williams and Mike Ojo are all players who can score inside, rebound the ball, and should be able to take advantage of Newcastle’s limited inside presence.
Raiders lead the league in rebounding, averaging 41 boards as a team.
With Bell on their side, it’s important that last season’s MVP doesn’t attempt to take over straight away. Newcastle will already be well aware of what the 6-foot guard is capable of. If Bell goes for glory right away, Newcastle will pounce and take advantage.
Newcastle have never beaten Plymouth in a final., Okay, so there has only been one game, but player/coach Fabulous Flournoy hasn’t forgotten it. He doesn’t take his runners-up medals with gratitude, and losing in Newcastle to a still relatively new BBL franchise will never sit well with any coach, especially a veteran play-caller like Fab.
Of course, things have changed since 2007, with the exception of the team, this year’s squad is hungrier and more determined. For years every Newcastle Eagles end of season party has always featured fans having their pictures taken next to at least two of the four BBL trophies up for grabs.
Last season, they had nothing. In a cruel way if you’re a Newcastle fan, it brought a welcome change to the BBL, a breath of fresh air. But after a year on the sidelines, the Eagles are ready to soar again.
Like they did five years ago, they will start as favourites, and rightly so. The brand of basketball they are playing at the moment is sublime and a joy to watch. Sitting pretty at the top with an 8-0 record, they have a lot to smile about now.
Fortunately for Newcastle, one of the side’s major strengths is their three-point shooting. They are one of the highest ranked teams in the BBL from beyond the arc, shooting 34% overall. Eagles strength, is Plymouth’s weakness. They are generally a poor perimeter-defensive side, as they have given up a lot of three-point attempts this season, against Newcastle, that could prove costly.
Despite having Bell in the opposite corner, Eagles have a solid one-two punch in Paul Gause and Joe Chapman. The latter is arguably the best long-range shooter in the BBL right now, along with veteran Charles Smith.
Despite a limited inside presence, Andrew Thomson and Darius Defoe will stand their ground against any frontline the BBL has to offer. Both getting double-double number this season. It’s important though that those two stay out of foul trouble, as Plymouth’s strength is their inside game.
Despite being a veteran side, Eagles like to push the ball in transition and they could damage Plymouth if they choose this. If Eagles stay out of foul trouble, they could match their 90-67 success in Newcastle last month.