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.