Thursday, 28 January 2010

Robert Archibald shine but CSKA top Malaga

Pops Mensah Bonsu came out on top in the Euroleague's Battle of the Brits on Wednesday as his new team, CSKA Moscow, scored a 86-78 win over Unicaja Malaga.

The Londoner played just 7 minutes, grabbing 3 points and 1 rebound.

He was out-shone by Great Britain team-mates Robert Archibald, with 16 and 5, and Joel Freeland 8 and 5, but their efforts couldn't save the Spaniards from the loss.


Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Rob Yanders insists Glasgow Rocks can challenge for BBL.

Rob Yanders believes Glasgow Rocks to build an effective challenge to the presumed BBL title duopoly of Sheffield Sharks and Newcastle Eagles.

Wins over Leicester and Plymouth last weekend means Sterling Davis’ men have now reeled off six successive victories to move into third place.

“We’re just trying to stay consistent,” Yanders declared. “The team chemistry is just getting better and better and we seem to be getting to know each other every time we go out there. Guys know their roles and they know when to step up. And we’re playing right to the 40th minute.”

The Rocks have also finally added a genuine centre in 6’11” Randall Hanke and Yanders expects the GB international to provide a new dimension.
“He’s a nice big target for us inside,” Yanders added. “He’s not come into his own yet but having him, and that extra depth, is going to help us against everybody.”


Euroleague infused with British rivalry

Great Britain team-mates Robert Archibald, Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu will square off on Wednesday night when Unicaja Malaga and CSKA Moscow meet in the opening game of the Euroleague’s second phase.

Paisley-born Archibald illustrated his recovery from a back injury by grabbing 14 points and 13 rebounds for Malaga in the Spanish League last weekend, with Freeland adding 10 and 4 in a 79-74 win over Manresa.

While Mensah-Bonsu has made a quietly effective start to his career with the 2008 European champions since arriving in Moscow from Toronto earlier this month.


Friday, 22 January 2010

Great Britain duo land in BBL

Two of Great Britain internationals have signed to play in the British Basketball League until the end of the season.

Point guard Flinder Boyd, who has been battling a knee injury, has completed his long-discussed move to Newcastle Eagles.

While twice-capped centre Randall Hanke joins the Glasgow Rocks to make his rookie debut.

Boyd, a Dartmouth graduate, comes to the reigning league champions, as the latest stop in a pro career that began in 2002 at French Pro A club Le Havre. He has since played in French Pro B with Mulhouse and Nantes, before a two year spell with Rosalia in the Spanish LEB. Boyd's last club attachment was with Leicester Riders, before joining the Great Britain national team last summer.

Eagles coach Fab Flournoy believes that he already has a basis of a team to retain the BBL Championship title, but feels Boyd, who will arrive on Tyneside next week, will give the team an extra dimension once he regains full fitness.

"Flinder is a player I have been keen to sign for a little while now. We have talked a lot recently and have monitored Flinders' rehabilitation. He is a much respected player and I think the type of character that is going to fit very easily into our system. He is also the type of guy that makes players around him better, which will be a real shot in the arm for us at this point in the season, both on and off the court."

New York-born Hanke has British citizenship granting him 5 caps with team GB and at 25, has finally completed a protracted move to Glasgow.

"Randall is the body we've been searching for, for what seems like forever now," said Rocks coach Sterling Davis. "He's a hard worker on both ends of the floor with a soft touch around the basket. He will definitely give us some added depth on our frontline."


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Sheffield Sharks lift BBL Cup

Sheffield Sharks claimed the domestic basketball season's first piece of silverware with a 89-86 victory over Cheshire Jets in the BBL Cup final in Birmingham.

Spurred by 19 points apiece from Mike Cook and Ryan Patton, the league leaders justified their tag as favourites by seizing control in the opening stages and holding off Cheshire's frenetic late rally.

It was an even opening to the game, despite two three-pointers from Sharks' fit-again playmaker Patton. However, it was Cheshire who took the first significant advantage - they enjoyed a 9-2 run to lead 18-11, with threes from James Hamilton and Chez Marks. Sheffield battled back and scored the final 11 points of the quarter to take a 22-18 lead into the second quarter.

Sharks' lead was extended to eight points at 28-20 midway through the second stanza on the back of a Mike Tuck bucket.

However, the quarter proved to be a relatively low scoring affair, as both teams looked to limit their opponents chances. Sheffield pulled out the biggest lead of the half at 37-26, courtesy of seven unanswered points, including a Perry Lawson three-pointer.

Sharks applied the pressure in the third quarter - a 7-2 start saw them leading 48-35, thank in no small part to the scoring of Mike Cook. Jets managed a few long range shots, but ultimately struggled to find their range and Sharks led 64-48 going into the final quarter.

However, the Jets – led by a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds from Hamilton, the final's Most Valuable Player - applied pressure to trim the deficit.

A Colin O'Reilly three-pointer with 1.33 to go saw Jets get back to within three points at 76-79. Tuck pulled Sharks back, before Hamilton and then O'Reilly again cut the gap back to three points.

Paul Peterson had the chance to cut it back to a one-point ball game, but failed to convert his free throws with 26 seconds remaining and with Jets in the penalty they were forced to foul to try to regain possession.

Lawson scored four from four free throws to keep Jets at arms length and while Marks scored twice it was not enough to steal victory.

"It's great to win the first silverware of the season," Atiba Lyons player-coach of the Sharks commented.

"Chester made it tough for us in the final quarter, but we are delighted to get our hands on some silverware."


Saturday, 16 January 2010

Eurobasket qualifier dates confirmed

Great Britain's men will open their Eurobasket 2011 qualifying campaign away in Hungary on August 2 after the dates were announced by FIBA Europe, following Saturday's draw. No venues for the home ties have yet been announced.

2 August 2010 - Hungary v GB
8 August 2010 - GB v Macedonia
11 August 2010 - Bosnia & Herzegovina v GB
14 August 2010 - GB v Ukraine
17 August 2010 - GB v Hungary
23 August 2010 - Macedonia v GB
26 August 2010 - GB v Bosnia & Herzegovina
29 August 2010 - Ukraine v GB

The teams placed first in each group, and the two second best placed teams, will qualify for EuroBasket 2011, which will be held in Lithuania. The remaining ten teams will play in the Additional Qualification or Relegation round.

Women start against Slovaks
Great Britain women's games have been confirmed for the following dates with the opening tie on August 14 at home to Slovakia.

14 August 2010 - GB v Slovak Republic
17 August 2010 - Germany v GB
20 August 2010 - GB v Ukraine
23 August 2010 - Slovak Republic v GB
26 August 2010 - GB v Germany
29 August 2010 - Ukraine v GB

The teams placed first and second in each group will qualify for the Final Round of EuroBasket Women 2011, which will be hosted by Poland.

The ten teams which do not qualify will participate in an Additional Qualification or Relegation Round, which will be played in May 2011.


Eurobasket 2011 qualifying draws - LIVE

The Eurobasket 2011 qualifying and 2010 European Championships draw from Munich - live Blog on the fate of Great Britain, England, Scotland and Wales.

Great Britain's men's coach Chris Finch on the campaign
"We may have been seeded in the second pot for the draw but that didn't mean we took anything for granted. Make no mistake Division A is tough and perhaps last time we took people by surprise because we were a relatively unknown quantity, but now, we have been exposed to more top-level European basketball.

"Last year everyone said we were drawn in the group of death at the Europeans and yes, it was tough, but particularly against Spain we stepped up and raised our game. And that's what we will have to do this summer.

"With everyone available and the ability to prepare for this campaign correctly, I see no reason why we can't be one of the main contenders for qualifying."

GB women's Head coach Tom Maher on his team's chances
"At this level every team is tough, that is the nature of the competition. Britain played six of the 18 teams in the draw in the last round of qualifying so we know what to expect.

Slovak Republic, Ukraine and Germany will provide us with stiff opposition but I am encouraged by how the group of players I had last summer got on, both in training in Manchester and then at the World University Games, where we surprised a few people.

"I'm confident that with another good camp this year, and a fully fit roster available, we will be in a good position to challenge these three/four countries, and that's exactly what we need to do to stay on track for London 2012."

16:15 Group B: GREAT BRITAIN, Macedonia, Bosnia, Hungary and Ukraine.
It was never going to be an easy route to the finals in Lithuania 2011 for Chris Finch's men but - pending Luol Deng's availability - it's an achieveable feat, having avoided Italy and Montenegro. Lots of air miles though. Those qualifiers on a home and away basis in August.

Remember, Finch's side will take on the Bosnians for the second successive Eurobasket qualifying campaign. In 2008 GB won at the NIA in Birmingham, although they lost the return fixture in Bosnia. The team also took on Macedonia last summer in a friendly, where despite a roster stripped of their key players due to injury and illness, they only lost 78-67.

The draw in full:
Group A: Latvia, Israel, Finland, Italy, Montenegro
Group B: Macedonia, Great Britain, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Hungary, Ukraine
Group C: Poland, Bulgaria, Belgium, Portugal, Georgia
(Group winners and best two runners-up qualify for finals)

16:05 Eurobasket 2011 qualifiers Senior Women. Division A. Group D: GREAT BRITAIN, Slovakia, Germany and Ukraine. Yup, it's the Germans again for Tom Maher's side who, lest we forget, needed a special exemption to stay in Division A. One of the tougher draws too.

In the last Eurobasket qualifying campaign, GB recorded their only win of the summer against Germany when Johannah Leedham's winning basket sealed a 61-59 victory, but they agonising lost in Cardiff 74-72 in the return fixture. That same campaign the GB basketball team almost got their campaign off to a great start with a win over Ukraine but lost narrowly 59-54 and were there defeated 80-73 in Cardiff.

The draw in full:
Group A: Italy, Lithuania, Croatia, Belgium, Netherlands
Group B: Latvia, Israel, Serbia, Romania
Group C: Turkey, Hungary, Bulgaria, Finland, Montenegro
Group D: Slovak Republic, Ukraine, Germany, Great Britain
(Top two in each group qualify for finals)

15:50 A far-too-long commercial break before the senior draws. In the meantime, we can tell you that Worcester Wolves have signed 6'10" Lithuanian centre Giedrius Knysas. Petroslav Zafirov has been released. The Bulgarian now with more clubs than Tiger Woods behind him.

FIBA Europe President George Vassilakopoulos has addressed the assembled masses with a plea for sanity going forward.

"I can say that today we no longer have distinct Eastern and Western Federations as in the past," he said. "Today we have European Federations, of course with important differences at the sports of financial level, but with, more and more, the same mentality, the same approach to the principals and values of our sport!

"To close my comments today, I would like to point out that as of the first of December of last year the new treaty on the European Union has entered into force. This treaty contains specific reference to sport, that I do hope, will allow the sports movement to finally obtain, after many years of efforts, the official recognition of the specificity of sport, and the special link between sport and society."

15:35 It's Men, Division C. Group A: WALES, Andorra, Moldova and Gibraltar. Group B: SCOTLAND, Malta, Denmark and San Marino.
Scotland came third last time out in Edinburgh in 2008. Wales were in the bottom two and saved by the judges from elimination.

15:33 Eurobasket women, Division C. Group B: SCOTLAND, WALES, Malta, Azerbaijan. That's in Yerevan, Armenia from June 28-July 3.

15:29 Eurobasket Under-16 Women, Division C. SCOTLAND, Malta and Monaco in the first round. An entire continent exhales.

15:25 My bad. How could we have forgotten the Under-16, Division C draws? Shame on us, especially as the Welsh are involved here. On the men's side, Group A has SCOTLAND, WALES, Andorra and Monaco. All off to Andorra and every one of them grateful to have avoided San Marino in the first round.

15:15 Anyone got draw fatigue yet? Just the senior draw and the mighty Division C to come. GB in Division A for men and women. Fixtures to be played on an home and away basis this summer for the right to qualify for Eurobasket 2011. Lest anyone is wondering where Ireland are - they've yanked their senior programme due to budgetary restrictions. A lot of unhappy folk over that decision.

15:10 Under-20 Men, Division B. Group C: GREAT BRITAIN, Belgium, Austria and Denmark. Tim Lewis will be happy with that one. This tournament's in Gissing and Oberwart, Austria from July 14-24.

15:05 Under-20 Women, Div B. GREAT BRITAIN, Macedonia, Belgium, Hungary, Czech Republic. Tough one this for GB. They're off to Kavadarsi, in Macedonia, July 15-25.

15:02 The Under-20 men draw coming up. Who will Tim Lewis and Damian Jennings be plotting against, this summer?

So that's the home countries sorted. Now for Great Britain following a short break at the Marriott Munchen.

14:40 Under-18 Men. ENGLAND, Romania, Denmark, Belarus, Israel in one group. SCOTLAND, Belgium, Portugal, Bosnia, Hungary in another. July 22- August 1 in Tel Aviv for your diary.

14:40 They're onto the Under-16 Men. Div B. ENGLAND get Ireland, Belarus, Czech Republic and Slovakia in their group. That's in Tallinn, Estonia, 5-14 August.

14:30 Under-18 Women. A corker this... ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, Finland, Estonia and Bulgaria, bound for Timisoara, Romania, 28 July - 8 August. Instant reaction from Scotland head coach, Donnie Finnie. "Ouch."

14:15 local time They're starting with Under-16 Women. Division B. ENGLAND, Macedonia, Romania and Slovakia all going to Skopje, 12-22 August.

14:00 Formalities first in Munich. There's a total of 285 teams in 20 FIBA Europe competitions will enter the draw, apparently. No frozen balls here.


Thursday, 14 January 2010

Mike Cook providing recipe for Sheffield's Cup chase

Sheffield Sharks player-coach Atiba Lyons believes Mike Cook will lead their side to the BBL Cup on Sunday – and back into the elite of British basketball.

The league leaders, now chasing a potential treble after their Trophy exit, have been powered by the omnipotent American this term with his 27 points per holding centre-stage in their resurgence.

Lyons admits Cheshire are likely to target the former Pittsburgh standout for special attention. But so far, he says, Cook has overcome everything thrown in his path.

“He’s surprised me,” Lyons admits. “It’s his first trip overseas, he’s getting acclimatised to being away from home but still being in an English-speaking country. But he’s got a good support group around him. And he’s doing well. He plays hard for us. The guys like him and he likes them.

“The first year can always be iffy. You can get homesick. The style of play is a lot more physical than back home. He’s been able to adjust on the fly,”

With the Sharks sweeping the season series with the Jets in the league, Lyons concedes his team will take the favourites tag to Birmingham.
Yet, given the unexpected revival of Paul Smith’s veteran line-up, the year’s first piece of silverware remains up for grabs.

“Every time they’ve played us, they’ve had a different line-up,” the second-year playcaller declared. “But they’ve made some changes so it’s going to be a tough game.”


Myers: Cheshire can beat the odds in BBL Cup final

Cheshire Jets' veteran forward Shawn Myers believes that his side can upset the formbook when they meet Sheffield Sharks in the BBL Cup final on Sunday.

Sharks have won all three BBL Championship meetings this season, but the evergreen 40-year-old hopes that Jets can produce yet another shock.

"They're our bogey team at the moment, but it's something that really worries me,” he said. “It takes a lot to beat a team four straight times, so if you ask me who I'd rather play in the final, I'd say it would Sheffield - and I like challenge that they pose. We have nothing to lose, we have it all to gain, and that makes it harder and tougher on them.

"I think when they play us, [Mike] Cook and [Ryan] Patton are the two guys that we struggle with. They're the key players, but they still have the likes of Tafari Toney and Todd Cauthorn who make the shots when they're left open - so we need to keep an eye on them."

Myers is also excited about the prospect of playing in another final as his career drifts towards its conclusion.

"I've played in a couple of finals, Newcastle beat in the Trophy one year, and I won the play-offs with the Rocks,” he declared.

”But to get here is huge for us, and shows the progress we've made.

“After the problems we've had this season, we've done really well to find a way to win. It shows what a team can do when it plays to its strengths."


Assists crown sits neatly with Jessie Sapp

Glasgow Rocks guard Jessie Sapp has admitted he would be thrilled to win the BBL’s assists title, even if it means he gives up his chance to steal the scoring spotlight.

The New Yorker has bagged a league-high 6.9 dimes per game this season for the Kelvin Hall outfit, along averaging with 18 points.
However the rookie, who left Georgetown University last summer, insists he is comfortable with his surprise change of role to become the Rocks’ primary playmaker.

Sapp said: “Everybody looks at the game and says ‘ this person scored X amount of points’. You can contribute in other ways than just scoring and still be the main factor on the team. I think that’s a great thing. It makes you a complete player. Anyone can score. Anyone can settle for being a three-point shooter. But when you can rebound, play defence, get steals and assists, that’s what makes you a good player.”


Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Mensah-Bonsu is Moscow-bound

Great Britain forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu is to join CSKA Moscow.

The Londoner, who was waived two weeks ago by the NBA's Toronto Raptors, has signed with the 2008 Euroleague champions for the remainder of the current campaign.

Mensah-Bonsu played briefly in the Euroleague last season for Spanish side Joventut Badalona.


Monday, 11 January 2010

Finch wins D-League Battle of Britain

Chris Finch came out on top of Nick Nurse in the head to head between GB coaches in the D-League's own Battle of Britain.

Finch's Rio Grande Valley Vipers defeated Nurse’s Iowa Energy twice on the road at the weekend, the Vipers knocking off the Eastern Conference leaders 109-100 on Saturday - the loss the first at home all season for the Energy - followed by a further 122-104 victory on Sunday.


Thursday, 7 January 2010

Betts move to Real Madrid dead

It looks like Andy Betts proposed transfer from Greek outfit Aris to ACB giants Real Madrid is destined to fail.

As first reported in AS, representatives of the Spanish club approached the Great Britain international's representatives last week as they searched for a replacement for injured centres, Van den Spiegel and Felipe Reyes.

However sources in Greece have indicated to that the move is "not going to happen" following initial negotiations.

The Leicestershire-born star, regarded as one of the country's greatest-ever players, joined Aris midway through last season and was rewarded with a new one-year deal last summer.


Chris Finch on the challenges of 2010

Great Britain coach Chris Finch ... on 2010's qualifiers, the future of British Basketball and the "paparazzi".


Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Britain learn seedings for 2011 Euro draw

Great Britain’s men have been placed in the second group of seeds for the draw for next summer’s qualifiers for Eurobasket 2011 which takes place in Germany on January 16.

With all eleven European participants in the 2010 World Championships automatically qualifying, the remaining 15 countries in the A Division will face off for the remaining places during August.

The hopefuls will be divided into three groups of five teams and will play home and away games. The teams placed first in each group and the two best second placed teams, will qualify for the EuroBasket 2011 finals directly – with one further berth up for grabs in a play-off.

Britain’s feat in reaching last year’s Eurobasket finals was enough to earn them the fifth-highest ranking after Poland, Macedonia, Latvia and Israel.

By contrast, GB women are seeded just 16th for their draw for the qualifiers for the 2011 Eurobasket in Poland after just avoiding relegation to Division B.

Both sides will be aiming to achieve the kind of results that would leave FIBA with no option but to hand the hosts a place in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.


Mensah-Bonsu hints at Europe return

Great Britain international Pops Mensah-Bonsu is ready to turn his back on the NBA for good after being released by the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday.

The 6’9” Londoner only began his second stint with the league’s sole Canadian club three months ago but saw his stay curtailed for financial reasons.

It remains possible that, under the NBA’s collective bargaining rules, Mensah-Bonsu could be offered a new cut-price deal by Toronto as soon as next week. However with lucrative offers already on hand from teams in Spain and Russia, the ex-Hackney forward is hinting that he will head home to Europe and give up his trans-Atlantic dream.

“If I can go over there and have the type of season I had in the D-League last year, then I will definitely raise the eyebrows of some teams and look to get a more established contract, rather than always looking over my shoulder with a non-guaranteed contract or taking a short-term deal,” Mensah-Bonsu told The Fan 590.

“I’m definitely looking to put myself in a better position financially and then as a player too. I’m 26-years-old now. This is pretty much how my NBA career has gone. I had a short time in Dallas, an even shorter time in San Antonio. Same with Houston and Toronto too. It’s wearing thin sometimes.

“As a player who plays based on confidence, it’s tough to keep bouncing back. But I’m a resilient guy. It’s not going to stop me from proving myself in the NBA but sometimes you’ve got to take your family into consideration and do what’s best for them.”

With his playing time with the Raptors declining in recent weeks, Mensah-Bonsu’s exit was not unexpected despite his popularity with the team’s fan base. And although he has received an approach from another NBA team, the priority – he claims – is to play out this season on the court rather than from the sidelines.

“I’m going to weigh up my options and if I see a (NBA) team come up with an offer in the next couple of days that gives me a chance to play, then maybe I’ll take it,” he added. “If I see a situation that is just me being the 13th or 14th guy on the bench, then I’ll probably head back over to Europe.”

Listen to the full interview here.


Hanke poised for BBL move?

Great Britain centre Randall Hanke has ended his short-term deal with Irish Superleague strugglers Ulster Elks but could be set for a move across the Sea.

The rookie, who left Providence University last summer, is understood to have held talks with Worcester Wolves and "one other team" over a move to the BBL.

Hanke had a short trial with French Pro A outfit Cholet earlier this season but was not offered a deal.


Flournoy: Smith can be Eagles X-factor

Fabulous Flournoy believes Charles Smith’s willingness to come off the bench is a major reason why Newcastle Eagles remain a contender for the BBL title.

The reigning champions, looking to bounce back from a sub-standard first half of the campaign, have gone with a smaller quicker line-up in recent weeks in their attempt to overhaul rivals Sheffield.

Flournoy admits that rotation is unlikely to change as the Tyneside outfit bid to defend their crown and achieve the consistency that has eluded them to date.

And although the American is still looking to add to his squad in January, he acknowledges that Smith’s 17 points and 5 rebounds contribution will be a vital component as their side moves forward.

“Everyone has solidified their roles now in our team and Charles is a phenomenal scorer,” Flournoy said.

“He can play inside and outside and gives us some different things, whether it is that veteran leadership, a crucial rebound, or a vital basket.

“To have Charles, a sixth man, coming off the bench, is great for our team, as he should be starting in this league, so he is our X-Factor player.”

Newcastle can close the gap at the top of the table to just two points with a win at Cheshire on Sunday. However Flournoy is demanding an improvement from his team on the road after a damaging four losses already this term.

“This is definitely our weakness at the moment and I think with teams hitting their form, it is important that we keep our rhythm that we had before the break,” he underlined.


Duane James on Leicester Riders hit-list

Leicester Riders coach Rob Paternostro has admitted his interest in bringing back American point guard Duane James to fill the vacancy left by the departed Tack Minor.

James, who was released by Spanish club Guadalajara a few months ago, was one of the key performers with the Midlands outfit last term when they earned a surprise top-four finish in the BBL.

With Minor, the league’s second-highest scorer, exiting before Christmas, it has left Paternostro with a huge vacancy to fill despite the alternative options of Isaac Westbrook and Bradd Wierzbicki at that spot.

And James could be the perfect fit, he concedes, to come in ahead of next weekend’s Trophy clash with Guildford.

“Duane is the kind of guy we want,” Paternostro said. “We loved having him around last season, on and off the floor. He’s certainly talented as you saw when he got an opportunity to play in Spain.

“All the reports are that he did well there but it was just that his club had to go in a different direction.“

If James finalises his return, it could push Leicester towards a different look than with the shot-happy Minor who visibly struggled to run plays and who was described by one team source as “difficult”.

“He left for personal issues but I think Tack is a talented guy and I hope he will be able to progress his career,” Paternostro stated.

“But when we went to Worthing without him, I thought we were able to share the ball more and we were more efficient in going inside-out. The guys were in different positions and that was more effective. And we’ll look to do more of that.”


Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Mensah-Bonsu waived by Toronto

Great Britain forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu has been waived by the Toronto Raptors, ahead of the deadline that would have seen his contract guaranteed for the remainder of the NBA season.

It is possible that the team could re-sign the Londoner to a 10-day contract if he is not picked up by another club in the league, or in Europe.

The 26-year-old Londoner – who has averaged just 2.1 points per game this season – is likely to move on after accepting his fate. "It's a business," he said.

It is thought Mensah-Bonsu's former club, Joventut Badalona, are preparing an offer to tempt him to return to the Spanish ACB although Caja Laboral Vitoria could also be in the running.

UPDATE: Here's how the news is being reported by Lord Doug of Smith in Toronto.

Lyons savouring Sheffield’s ascent

In the law of averages, the team that is top at Christmas will – more often than not – win the BBL. Achieve consistency early and the task of ending top of the pile becomes that much easier. Everton proved the rule is fallible when they tumbled from grace last term. However, the more points wrapped up in Santa’s sack, the greater the odds of picking up the prizes.

Atiba Lyons is taking nothing for granted. The four-point cushion that Sheffield Sharks hold at the campaign’s de facto mid-point has been hard-won but the American admits the toughest road lies ahead. Few expected the Yorkshiremen to be here, in truth. Not coming off Lyons’ disappointing debut year as a coach that left his suitability for the role in question and his side way off the pace.

If a response were needed, the answer has been swift. Sheffield will face Cheshire Jets in the BBL Cup final later this month. They have been the stand-out squad so far. Significantly, it is a team which works hard defensively, conceding just 79 points a night, second-fewest in the BBL. Consistent rather than spectacular, the Sharks challenge is beginning to look pretty genuine.

“If we can keep it going, if guys can stick to what we’ve been doing, and guys can stay healthy, little things like that, then yes we can win the title,” Lyons states. “But I’m not surprised at where we are. Coming into the season, I felt I had a pretty good group of guys, based on how they’d played in previous years. It was just a matter of how they gelled together and how long it would take.

“As a coach, you’re just hoping the personalities will match. The skills were there, and with the exception of Mike Cook, we knew what they would do in the BBL.”

Ah yes. Mike Cook. In truth, the former Pittsburgh stand-out has been the prime reason why Sheffield have elevated themselves above the pack. Despite a way-too-high rate of turnovers, and inconsistent three-point shooting, the newcomer’s league-high 27.5 points per led one opposing head coach to recently declare “there’s no real way to guard him.”

Lyons chuckles at the compliment. “He’s been a good find. He’s exceeded expectations, not just as a scorer but as a team guy.” Still, he knows the Stop-Cook schemes are being plotted in locker rooms and practice courts around the country. One man, as Everton discovered 12 months ago, does not a title win.

“Team will definitely key on him. He’s one of the top scorers in the league but we have other guys who can score,” Lyons declares. “But he’s able to find the open man. If you focus on him, there are other guys to step up and perform. We’re a tough team. We’ve got more than one option. We have Ryan (Patton), Tap (Toney), Todd (Cauthorn), Matt (Gorman), Mike Tuck. They can step up. If teams focus on Mike, others will come in.”

19 (league) games down. The Trophy soon up for grabs – with the pool round starting next weekend. Plus that silverware on the line on January 17 in Birmingham.

It has been six long years since Sheffield tasted the fruits of a major triumph, too long for a club of their stature. Yet until their name is inscribed in the books, tantalising promise and the thrill of optimism count for nothing. Lyons, as he should, is enjoying the moment. He is aware, though, that it will pass quickly if no tangible souvenirs are acquired.

“Coming in last year, I was thinking: ‘I’m going to try and win everything’. Your expectations are high. But it was a tough year. Coming in this season, my expectations were to be competitive, to finish well. Right now, we’re in a Cup final. We’re top of the league. It’s exceeded expectations and we’re enjoying it.”

Capturing the prize, however, would bring the greatest elation of all.


Mensah-Bonsu to learn Raps fate

Tuesday is D-Day for Pops Mensah-Bonsu and the Toronto Raptors. The Great Britain forward will meet team management to learn whether he will be retained for the rest of the NBA season - thereby, fully guaranteeing his contract. Ditching the Londoner would save the Raps US$400,000 and leave them extra flexibility for an extra roster move.

Sources close to Pops say "he is prepared for either outcome" but reports in the Spanish press that an approach from CSKA Moscow is on the table have been described as "nonsense".

Mensah-Bonsu, who re-joined Toronto after a brief stint with Houston at the start of the season, is averaging 2.1 points and 1.9 rebounds.

He has also been demonstrating his singing capabilities in Canada.