R9 Preview: Illawarra Hawks v Melbourne United

When: 8.00pm (AEDT), Saturday 13 March

Where: John Cain Arena, Melbourne

Broadcast: ESPN; Sky Sports NZ; SBS On Demand; Twitch


The last time

Melbourne 91 (Hopson 21, McCarron 17, Baba 13) d Illawarra 88 (Jessup 24, Harvey 22, Froling 16) – February 10, WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong

This was an eventful and emotional night for a lot of reasons. It was the first and only home game so far of the season for the Illawarra Hawks as they played in front of their faithful with Brian Goorjian as coach for the first time. But Melbourne United spoiled the party with the three-point win despite the absence of Chris Goulding, Jo Lual-Acuil and Shea Ili. What a show it was in the first half too. The two teams were on fire combining for a season-best 67 first quarter points with Melbourne up 36-31 while shooting at 7/11 from downtown. Both kept going to combine for a season-high 112 first half points too with United up 57-55 at the break while hitting 10/19 from deep with the Hawks matching that with 9/18 and Justinian Jessup top-scoring with 17. That sort of shooting was not going to last and both teams turned up the defensive heat in the second half, but that created for just as fascinating a contest. 

The game still came down to the wire and just days after a game clinching offensive rebound against the Perth Wildcats, Jack White again delivered when it mattered most for Melbourne with his team's last two baskets, his only scores of the game, plus another crucial board to secure the three-point win. That kept United undefeated after six games without any of those being in Melbourne. Scotty Hopson produced his best game of the season with Melbourne for 21 points. He got plenty of help too with Mitch McCarron breaking out offensively for 17 points and seven assists. Both went 3/5 from three-point land too. It wasn’t the homecoming the Hawks hoped despite 46 points between Justinian Jessup and Tyler Harvey.


The now

United have now lost consecutive matches for the first time this season and they will be desperate to not see that turn into a three-game losing streak but they'll have to be on song against a Hawks team who returned to not only the winner's list, but to impressive form in a win against the Sydney Kings on Thursday.

Melbourne had won all six matches heading into the NBL Cup this season including that last up win in Wollongong over the Hawks. They did lose the first game of the tournament within a season to the Perth Wildcats but bounced back to score wins over the Adelaide 36ers, Sydney Kings and New Zealand Breakers. But they then fell to the Brisbane Bullets in a high quality affair and then went down to the South East Melbourne Phoenix on Wednesday.

That sees them slip to a 10-3 record overall on the season and to 4-3 at the NBL Cup to mean they are no longer in contention to win the trophy and winner's cheque given they are 7.5 points behind the Wildcats with only seven points on offer to them against the Hawks on Saturday.

Melbourne has welcomed back Chris Goulding and Shea Ili from injury but are still without Scotty Hopson and Jack White but they will be determined to avoid a third straight defeat at the NBL Cup and to extend their winning run against the Hawks to seven having won their last clash of the 2018/19 season, all three in 2019/20 and now the first of #NBL21.

It has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride to start the season and the time in charge at the Hawks for legendary coach Brian Goorjian but it's probably not that unexpected with the newness of the group he has assembled, and the youthfulness of it. 

The season started brilliantly for the Hawks in Queensland with two wins each over the Brisbane Bullets and Cairns Taipans, but it's been a rough ride since including that home loss to Melbourne. They did manage a win against the New Zealand Breakers to break it up, but the Hawks lost three of the first four games at the NBL Cup before a bounce back performance against the Adelaide 36rs.

That led into their worst performance of the season against the Perth Wildcats on Sunday but it showed strong character from Illawarra to bounce back and deliver a similarly emphatic performance in a win against the Kings on Thursday night. 

That should give them plenty of confidence to bring into the clash with Melbourne after Justinian Jessup regained his shooting touch, Sam Froling dominated inside and everything seemed to be on point again for the Hawks in a way similar to those opening four matches they won.


The stats

- Melbourne won't be happy with its defence in recent times. United never fell behind by double-figures in their opening seven games this season but they have seen that happen four times in the past six matches. They fought back to win the first two but haven’t been able to pull off a comeback win against Bullets and Phoenix. 

- Melbourne gave up 90 points just twice in their first 11 games but have conceded 96 and 97 in the last two losses. United opponents have shot a combined 50 per cent from the field the last three games as well.

- This will be Chris Goulding's first time in his 324-game career that he will have played against a team coached by Brian Goorjian. He didn’t hit the court for either or Brisbane or Perth early in his career when he was a development player against either the Kings or Dragons, and he was injured for the first clash with the Hawks this season.

- Speaking of Goorjian, he will be coaching his 750th game in the NBL on Saturday. Over his first 749 games, he has coached his teams to 522 wins for six championships. He is now nearly 100 games ahead of the next coach on the all-time games list with Lindsay Gaze on 651 and he's more than 300 ahead of active coaches with Trevor Gleeson on 430.


The key men

Justinian Jessup – He may be a rookie but already he seems to be an important piece for the Hawks. When he is aggressive in looking for his shot and then also making himself a driving threat, and his shot is falling, this Hawks team looks almost unstoppable. He had made just 2/13 from three-point land over his previous three games but he broke out of the funk on Thursday going 3/5 for 15 points against the Kings and the team dominated on the way to a 20-point win. Before that slump the previous three games, the Golden State Warriors draftee had been shooting the three ball at 53.7 per cent and averaging 16.6 points. He was back to that form on Thursday and if it continues on Saturday, Illawarra will be tough to stop.

Chris Goulding – The United captain started the season in brilliant form including 27 points against Brisbane in his last full game before pinging a calf against the Perth Wildcats. He missed the next six games before returning with 21 points against the Bullets. He had another 22 points on Wednesday against the South East Melbourne Phoenix, but the old minutes restriction might have cost him the chance to lead Melbourne to the win in overtime. He sat all of the extra period and that only highlighted how much he is missed when not on the floor especially with Scotty Hopson also absent. He is leading his team with 18.1 points a game while shooting at a career-best 45.3 per cent from three so far this season highlighting the form he's in.


The quotes

Hawks coach Brian Goorjian reaches the 750-game mark on Saturday in a milestone no other coach has come close to, and possibly never will again. But he is as focused, passionate and committed as ever to getting the best out of his team and that's why he was so happy with how they were locked in defensively against the Sydney Kings on Thursday. He wants to see more of it now against Melbourne on Saturday.

"We talked a lot about stopping reaching, putting your chest on them, showing your hands and keeping them off the foul line. I made it clear after the Perth game, I'm not talking about the referees," Goorjian said.

"I have been yelling at my team about playing defence without fouling. You get in there and start reaching and grabbing and holding, and that's a sign of laziness and not moving your feet.

"It's a lot of work to stay into those shooters and keep them in front of you, and that was a big key against Sydney and then you top it with pushing the ball up that floor and not doing stupid stuff early in the clock. That was how we started in this thing and it's hard to do that consistently through this grind of 16 or 17 road games, it's difficult."

Illawarra big Sam Froling had a career-best night against the Kings with 20 points, six rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots on 9/10 shooting. His reward? A battle with Jock Landale on Saturday against Melbourne.

"Tyler and Justinian get so much attention that it kinda frees me up a little bit to do a bit of work. When we are moving the ball like that I get some easy shots and that helped me to get rolling," Froling said.

"I'm sure there'll be games where other guys do step up as well and it's a team game, and Tyler and Justinian won't win it all for us even though they'll be a big part of it. We need everyone to step up. I've had a couple of dodgy games but Goorj still believes in me and keeps me in that starting line-up, and I probably came out in this game and showed that deserve to stay there."

Melbourne coach Dean Vickerman was disappointed with Wednesday's overtime loss to South East Melbourne which put them out of the running to win the NBL Cup.

"We talked about this being like a semi-final for us and we needed to win this one to even give ourselves a chance to win this tournament," Vickerman said.

"So yes it's disappointing to lose a Throwdown, but we didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to talk into that last game to win the tournament either. That's what I'm most disappointed about."

While on paper it looks like Melbourne has all the talent in the world for Vickerman to work with as coach, there's a lot to deal with right now. 

Chris Goulding, Shea Ili and Jo Lual-Acuil have just come back from injury, Scotty Hopson and Jack White remain sidelined, and he doesn’t always have the freedom to make the final decisions on playing time as a result. But he is looking forward to getting the most out of what he's got against Illawarra on Saturday.

"It's a challenge right now because we obviously have a long-term plan with the return from injury for Shea and Chris. They are both limited in what they can do for us right now so that's a challenge," Vickerman said. 

"But it's also an opportunity for others and Sammy Mac might not always score a lot, but the way he clashes the glass and defends is great. There's Yudai too and those guys are getting more opportunity at the moment. We want to make sure Chris and Shea come back the right way and we don't want to see any reinjury so we're doing the right thing with that.

"We go to overtime against Phoenix and we were five up with two to go, and that's the thing that hurts right now. We'll look back on every one of our executions and I thought at times we got a little bogged down with the physicality, and didn’t cut and screen as aggressively as we needed to keep getting free. We'll work on keeping on getting better."


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