Newcastle Eagles chief Paul Blake reckons it will be a five-team race to claim the BBL title this season.
Another topsy-turvy weekend saw previously unbeaten Worcester Wolves lose twice, while Sheffield Sharks and Plymouth continued their march towards the summit of the table. Eagles didn’t play, but Blake feels the season is now beginning to take shape and the potential contenders are becoming obvious.
Traditionally, the BBL has been a two-horse race with Eagles battling with Leicester, Plymouth and Mersey Tigers over the last few years. But Blake has extended the battle to five teams this year, including his Eagles in a pack of title contenders that includes champions Leicester Riders, Worcester Wolves, Plymouth Raiders and Sheffield Sharks.
Eagles’ next game is at rock-bottom Surrey but Blake admits he has already got one eye on the crucial return fixture with Worcester later this month, one of 12 games that he feels will decide the destination of the title.
“It was a very interesting weekend. It is becoming very apparent that it is a five-team race at the moment,” he said.
“Worcester lost two games this weekend and for me that kind of thing is going to continue all season. Plymouth started very poorly and I think we probably took them a little bit for granted because of it but they’ve not lost since.
“They have beaten Worcester since and then Leicester also beat them. That will happen all over the season and I think we’re probably looking at 12 games that will decide who wins the title.
“Those will be the games against Worcester, Leicester, Sheffield and Plymouth. For me those games are going to be absolutely crucial to decide the destination of the title.
“We were saying this time last year that the games against Leicester would decide where the title went. The year before that we said Leicester and the year before that we were talking about Mersey Tigers. This year is different because it is the first time where there are a number of teams involved in that race.
“So for us, having lost two of those games already this season, it might look like we’ve got catching up to do. But on the upside there is a lot of improvement still to be done in this team. We have effectively only played two of the games that might decide where the title goes.”
While the heavyweight contenders are obviously in the frame, Blake is being careful not to write off the rest of the league in a season that looks as if it will be one of the most open for years.
“London Lions have picked off a few teams already and they have just recruited several talented new players over the weekend,” he said.
“They had those visa issues but they’re a dangerous team. Look at the improvement in Durham too, we only beat them by seven points at our place and the return will be a real test for us.”
There was disappointment in the Eagles camp at the prospect of a free fortnight after the Worcester defeat, which halted some of the momentum built up by Fab Flournoy’s new-look side over the last few weeks.
The Eagles will take on Huddersfield Heat on Wednesday in a friendly that will give coach Fab Flournoy a chance to try out some new combinations. But all eyes are on a winter programme that kicks into gear as soon at the Eagles return to BBL action on Sunday.
“It was frustrating and we have had discussions with the players since. We just wanted to reinforce the idea that these are the kind of games that will decide the destination of the league,” he said.
“It was a winnable game but really, when you look at it, Worcester were the more focused in the final quarter and that is what decided the game. That was possibly the disappointing thing but there is plenty of improvement to be had from this team, I’m sure of that.”
Meanwhile, Eagles have landed a tough-looking trip to Glasgow Rocks in the quarter-final of the BBL Cup. The game will be played on November 17.