R7 Preview: Illawarra Hawks vs Melbourne United

When: 1pm (AEDT), Sunday 16 January 2022

WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

Fox Sports; Kayo; 10 Peach; 10 Play; ESPN (delayed); Sky Sport NZ

Who won last time?

Melbourne 102 (Goulding 25, Landale 21, Hopson 13) d Illawarra 87 (Deng 15, Jessup 11, Froling 10, Harvey 10) - Round 19, 2021, WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

United continued their dominance over Illawarra last season with a Round 19 romp in the 'Gong, running up a century as the big three of Chris Goulding, Jock Landale and Scotty Hopson combined for 59 points at 65 per cent from the field and 13/23 from the arc.

What happened last start?

Melbourne’s new big three were too much for New Zealand to handle in Hobart, Goulding, Caleb Agada and Jo Lual-Acuil adding 61 points. Lual-Acuil schooled Yanni Wetzell, continuing the interior form that’s allowed United to weather three poor shooting nights.

The Hawks’ COVID rust lasted just three minutes, after which they trailed Sydney by 11 points. Following that they rained in 97 points at 57 per cent, while their D kicked in late to secure the W. Their newfound offensive efficiency faces its biggest test against Melbourne.

Who’s in form?

Jo Lual-Acuil – Big Jo has delivered 41 points and 20 boards in the past two games, shooting 18/29 on two-pointers, with all-but one in the paint. The only place he can’t hit from is the foul line – 3/11 since Round 2 – so how long until teams employ hack-Acuil?

Sam Froling – After outplaying Wetzell, Lual-Acuil faces the in-form Froling, who peeled off an incredible 27 points and 10 boards on Sydney. He nailed a triple and two long deuces, and if he and Reath can connect from deep, Melbourne’s interior D weakens.

Who needs to be?

Justinian Jessup – The Hawks’ sharpshooter is likely to match-up on Goulding first, and if that’s the case he must execute the team scout to perfection, which will probably involve some serious top-blocking and running CG43 off the arc. Just as importantly, Jessup needs to be perpetual motion on offence to make Goulding put in some serious work at that end.

Matthew Dellavedova – Tyler Harvey burst his NBL22 opening-quarter duck against the Kings, and once hot he didn’t stop, dropping 23 points on 6/7 from deep. Harvey gets going when given space in transition, so expect Delly in his shorts from tip-off, and don’t be surprised if the Boomers stalwart takes T-Raw into the low block early on to test his D.

Who’s statting up?

 - Last season Illawarra were 3-9 against Melbourne and Perth, and 18-9 against the rest of the NBL. So far in #NBL22 they are 4-1 without playing either of last year’s Grand Finalists

 - The Hawks rank first in the league in points per game, made field goals, field-goal percentage and fewest turnovers, and second in three-point makes

 - United’s D ranks first in opposition points per game, field-goal makes and percentage, blocks and defensive rebounding percentage, and second in opposition three-point makes and percentage

 - Melbourne have hit 8.7 triples at 31 per cent in their past three games, compared to 12 treys at 43 per cent in their previous three outings

Who’s matching up?

Duop Reath v Jack White – While he didn’t play a huge role against New Zealand, White crucially put out Jeremiah Martin’s fire in Friday’s final quarter. White has the smarts, size and athleticism to emulate Xavier Cook’s defensive shutdown of Reath, who has scored just 21 points at 43 per cent in his past two games and is sure to be a focus of the Hawks’ offence.

Who’s talking the talk?

Remember the days when Melbourne United could put points on the board with the best of them, but their defence and rebounding meant they went missing at the pointy end?

Remember the days when Chris Goulding could put point on the board with the best of them, but was highly-exploitable at the defensive end?

It’s no coincidence that Goulding’s development into a true franchise player has mirrored Melbourne’s rise into one of the NBL’s two powerhouse clubs.

“He’s one of the highest capped guys on the United roster ever, he’s a dual championship winner, he’s our captain, there aren't too many more accolades you can put on him,” coach Dean Vickerman said.

“I just love the way he turns up to practice and every game and every part of it’s important to him. He likes to see perfection and if he doesn’t he’s willing to hold people accountable to the way we go about things, me included.

“When you have people like that around your club it’s pretty easy to build strong culture.”

It’s that culture, driven by Vickerman and Goulding, that has made United a place where players excel at both ends of the floor.

Perhaps the best example has been Jo Lual-Acuil, who right now is dominating the paints on both sides of the ball.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Vickerman said after Friday’s win.

“Jo’s attack on the rim and his seal inside the paint was so effective tonight, and being an anchor for us at the defensive end and challenging things at the rim.”

Melbourne have quickly adjusted to life post-Landale, and their passing game is regularly finding big Jo in scoring positions.

“We came into the game wanting to pass the ball better than we did against the JackJumpers, we turned it over a little bit too much,” Vickerman said.

“I thought we made some improvements in that area and that allowed Jo to get free with good passing and reading switches.

“A big part of the game for us tonight was points in the paint.”

A big challenge against Illawarra on Sunday will be defending the paint, with the Hawks featuring five genuine shooters in their starting line-up.

While Lual-Acuil and Ariel Hukporti love protecting the rim, Sam Froling showed on Thursday he can make sagging defenders pay.

“When you’ve got shooters like Tyler, JJ and Duop out there and you’ve got AC scoring, you can’t come off any of those guys and it leaves me open a lot and I had a lot of time to shoot the outside ones,” Froling said.

“I've been working on that a lot recently and it was nice to see a few go in. Even down low, those guys get doubled and it gives me the opportunity to offensive rebound and put those back in, so having those guys around me makes my life a lot easier.”

It was obvious from the start of the season that Antonius Cleveland at power forward would be a game-changer for the Hawks.

However, Brian Goorjian is a coach who likes to go with what he knows, and it wasn’t until Sydney’s versatile frontcourt was threatening to steal victory that he rolled that dice.

“The small line-up was something that we got an opportunity to work on …. during this 10-day window,” Goorjian said.

“Getting Tyler and Xavier on the floor together with Justinian and AC, that was the turning point and that was what led to the victory.”

Cleveland will likely be needed at the four-spot again to help absorb and punish the pressure Melbourne’s guards apply, and to match the mobility of Jack White and Dave Barlow.

Illawarra’s reserves rank last in the league in minutes, while United’s rank first, and given the short turnaround and the way United roll their soldiers in and out, bench contributions will also be a key on Sunday.

The big question in can Goorjian find line-ups that keep the Hawks in the game while giving his stars enough rest to match Melbourne’s intensity?

“We haven't got to the depth in the rotations yet,” Goorjian said.

“The complication for me is line-ups playing together, substitution patterns and that game like the other two before the break, it’s close, a lot of the groups don’t play well together, I know a couple that do and I tend to go with that when it’s tight.”

Buckle up for potentially the game of the season to date as Harvey, Jessup and Rathan-Mayes take on Delly, Goulding and Shea Ili in the backcourt, Cleveland and Agada clash on the wings, then Reath and Froling battle White and Lual-Acuil in the frontcourt.


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