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NBL 2017-18 season preview: Illawarra Hawks

The Illawarra Hawks have struggled to click in the new NBL season. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)
Editor
20th September, 2017
5

The Illawarra Hawks stunned the NBL last season, making it all the way to the grand final, where they collapsed in a heap against the all-conquering Perth Wildcats. But will they have the same fortunes in 2017-18?

In what was the closest NBL season in history, the Hawks had an outstanding run. Young players stood up and were counted, AJ Ogilvy led the way in the paint and Rhys Martin provided a wealth of experience.

Heading into the season, the Hawks were viewed as solid, but nothing special. Rotnei Clare was supposed to provide the x-factor for the Wollongong-based outfit, but even he struggled his way through the first half of the season.

With Clarke’s struggles, the Hawks were sitting at the wrong end of the ladder and looked as if they were going to be in a tough spot to make the playoffs.

However, a masterstroke from one of the game’s most experienced coaches, Rob Beveridge, saw the sharp-shooting Clarke moved back to the bench, and didn’t the Hawks’ form line turn around?

They snuck their way into the finals, finishing fourth, being tasked with taking on the Adelaide 36ers. After dropping Game 1 on the road, they won at home and then silenced Jerome Randle to win Game 3 in Adelaide. Guard rotation Clarke and Mitch Norton, who came on in leaps and bounds last year, got the job done, the Hawks running our winners 106-98.

rotnei-clarke-illawarra-hawks-nbl-basketball-2017

(AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

They might have been smoked by the Wildcats in three games, but the Hawks exceeded expectations. However, with other rosters improving in leaps and bounds and a tough start to the upcoming season, not much more will be expected of them in the new season.

An inconsistent pre-season has hampered their build-up, even with a squad that’s similar to last year. It’s clear there are issues though, with club stalwart Oscar Forman only being re-signed late in the piece.

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You can expect the Hawks to again fight hard, but with teams, on paper at least, skipping away from those who have kept the status quo, just being scrappy and able to fight won’t be enough.

The Hawks’ defence wasn’t good enough at times last year. They conceded the second most points in the competition and without any notable moves to fix that, it will create enormous issues.

Team roster and depth chart

Squad
Mitch Norton, Kevin White, Marshal Nelson (development), Rhys Martin (captain), Rotnei Clarke, Angus Glover (development), Demitrius Conger, Tim Coenraad, Nic Pozoglou (development), Delvon Johnson (import), Oscar Forman, Cody Ellis, AJ Ogilvy, Nick Kay

In: Demitrius Conger, Delvon Johnson
Out: Marvelle Harris, Michael Hollyfield
Coach: Rob Beveridge

Starter Interchange 1 Interchange 2
Point guard Mitch Norton Kevin White Marshal Nelson (dev)
Shooting guard Rhys Martin (c) Rotnei Clarke Angus Glover (dev)
Small forward Demitrius Conger Tim Coenraad Nic Pozoglou (dev)
Power forward Delvon Johnson Oscar Forman Cody Ellis
Centre AJ Ogilvy Nick Kay

The Hawks have made few changes from the 2016-17 season. Only a pair of import swaps, as well as development players coming on board have changed.

Marvelle Harris and Michael Hollyfield, who spent the first half of the season underperforming then came somewhat good, have both been cut adrift by Beveridge.

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In their place are forwards Demitrius Conger and Delvon Johnson. It gives the roster a similar feel to their 2016-17 one, although Hollyfield provided them with more size up front, supporting Ogilvy as he battled to carry the team in rebounds.

While Nick Kay has grown as an inside force and made a strong performance at the FIBA Asia Cup, it’ll continue as a problem for the Hawks. Conger was known as a double-double machine during his time at college, but has done little since and will need to rediscover that touch, especially on the offensive glass.

Key questions

Can Rob Beveridge coach the Hawks to the playoffs?
There is no question the coaching of Beveridge was a key reason the Hawks were able to go as deep as they did last year, making it all the way to the big dance.

While they were smoked by his former team, the Wildcats, it was a phenomenal effort for the Wollongong-based club to get to the final, given they were down the bottom of the ladder early in the season, then had to defeat Randle and the sharp-shooting 36ers on the road.

Beveridge made smart moves all season with his team, and while for the majority he couldn’t sure up the defence, he allowed the team to play to their strengths.

They were offensively strong, and the experienced coach was happy to work with that. He made the move bringing his biggest star from the bench, handed the reigns of the team over to Mitch Norton and allowed his veterans to take shots whenever they saw fit – you only have to look at Oscar Forman and Tim Coenraad, who had superb second halves of the season.

Rob Beveridge clashes with ref.

(Illawarra Hawks)

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Are the imports good enough?
We know what to expect from Rotnei Clarke – he is a former MVP of the league and proved himself to be a team player last year when he willingly gave up his starting spot and headed back to the bench.

It worked a treat as Marvelle Harris, Kevin White and Norton were able to get the side off to a good start week in and week out, releasing the pressure valve on the sides X-Factor, with Clarke going on a scoring rampage.

What we don’t really know is what to expect from Conger and Johnson. Conger, who plays the three spot as previously mentioned was prodigiously talented during his college days. Despite that, he went undrafted in 2013 and has put up solid, but not NBL-level import numbers since.

Playing Serie B in Italy, he should have dominated, but struggled to maintain the College form.

Less is known about the 6’9 Johnson, who has played in Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden since going undrafted in 2011.

What the pair are able to produce throughout 2017-18 is going to have a huge bearing on where the Hawks end up.

Mitchell Norton is a key man, but can he stay fit and produce consistently?
Norton was one of, if not the Hawks best last season. He finished up averaging eight points and a couple of assists per game from an average of 20 minutes of court time.

It was his work creating and running the team though that was most noticeable. He didn’t rack up huge numbers, but he was calculated in his plays. Turnovers were down, shooting percentage up around 50 and alongside veteran guard Rhys Martin, he played a role in the team.

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The Hawks were and still are full of sharpshooting players. From Clarke to Forman and Ogilvy in the paint, they have a lot of players who know how to put points up in a hurry. Therefore, Norton simply has to bide his time, take correct shot options and play the team man – and he did that last year.

There was a noticeable difference when Norton wasn’t on court. After a strong outing at the FIBA Asia Cup, it’s imperative to the Hawks that he stays fit, healthy and consistent.

Will Nick Kay again provide the support required in the paint for AJ Ogilvy?
Ogilvy has long been one of the best centres in the NBL. He still has time on his side at 29 and showed no signs of slowing down last year, almost hitting double-double numbers which in 40-minute quarters is astronomical.

What made a world of difference for Illawarra in 2016-17 though was the emergence of Nick Kay. He averaged nine points and five rebounds in just 19 minutes of game time, which, playing behind Ogilvy is impressive to say the least.

For many seasons, Ogilvy has had to carry his team in the paint. He has led the way in rebounding, scoring under the basket and has always found his way to the foul line as teams attempt to shut him down. With Kay also there though, Ogilvy can play less minute and not worry about foul trouble as much.

If Kay continues to go from strength to strength, and with the addition of Johnson, the Hawks will have a strong froncourt if – and it’s a big if – but if it’s gels.

The Illawarra Hawks take on the Perth Wildcats

(Photo credit: Joel Armstrong)

Team fixtures

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Round Date Time (AEDT) Opponent Venue
1 Fri Oct 6 7:30 PM Cairns Taipans Cairns Convention Centre
2 Fri Oct 13 9:30 PM Perth Wildcats Perth Arena
3 Sun Oct 22 5:00 PM Brisbane Bullets WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
4 Thu Oct 26 9:30 PM Perth Wildcats Perth Arena
4 Sun Oct 29 3:00 PM Sydney Kings WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
5 Fri Nov 3 7:30 PM Brisbane Bullets Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre
5 Sun Nov 5 3:00 PM Sydney Kings Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
6 Sat Nov 11 5:30 PM Adelaide 36ers Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide
7 Thu Nov 16 7:30 PM Sydney Kings WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
7 Sat Nov 18 7:30 PM Cairns Taipans Cairns Convention Centre
8 Mon Dec 4 7:30 PM Melbourne United Hisense Arena, Melbourne
9 Sun Dec 10 3:00 PM Perth Wildcats WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
10 Sat Dec 16 7:30 PM Melbourne United WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
11 Sat Dec 23 7:30 PM Perth Wildcats WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
12 Thu Dec 28 7:30 PM Cairns Taipans WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
12 Sun Dec 31 3:00 PM Brisbane Bullets WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
13 Sat Jan 6 7:30 PM Melbourne United WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
14 Sat Jan 13 7:30 PM New Zealand Breakers WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
15 Fri Jan 19 7:30 PM Adelaide 36ers Titanium Security Arena, Adelaide
15 Sun Jan 21 5:00 PM Adelaide 36ers WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
16 Sun Jan 28 5:00 PM Cairns Taipans WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
17 Fri Feb 2 7:30 PM New Zealand Breakers WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
17 Sun Feb 4 1:00 PM New Zealand Breakers Spark Arena, Auckland
18 Thu Feb 8 7:30 PM Brisbane Bullets Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre
18 Sun Feb 11 3:00 PM Adelaide 36ers WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong
19 Fri Feb 16 5:30 PM New Zealand Breakers North Shore Events Centre, Auckland
19 Sun Feb 18 TBC Melbourne United Hisense Arena, Melbourne

The Hawks are in for a ridiculously tough start to the season. They play just three of their first 11 matches at home. That includes two trips to Perth, one south to Melbourne and a whole lot of hurt for the Hawks.

Spending so much time on the road for a team who could be middle of the road is not a way to build form, and it’s unlikely they are going to find themselves in a position of dominance on the ladder at the halfway point in the season.

If the Hawks are going to finish up the ladder, they will need to come good quickly at home, unless by some miracle they can hold themselves to a winning record on the road. From Round 9, they play seven games straight at home, meaning they won’t have to leave Wollongong for 39 days. That’s almost unprecedented in the middle of the season.

They then play Adelaide away, head back home for three straight and then play four of their last five on the road. A double trip to New Zealand and their last game in Melbourne will mean the Hawks can’t afford to be out of the top four heading into the final round.

Prediction

The Hawks could surprise everyone again, don’t get me wrong. I made the mistake of writing them off before last season started and they made the final four, then the grand final by knocking over Adelaide.

I just can’t see that happening again. There is too much emphasis on that home stand in the middle of the season, and if they enter that out of form, then it might take a while for them to get their mojo back.

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If that’s the case, or any injuries strike, it’s going to be a long slog for the Hawks.

Seventh.

Be sure to tune back in on Friday when we move another spot up the ladder and run over the chances of another east coast team.