Canterbury Rams lay foundations for success
The Canterbury Rams should be optimistic about what lies ahead after a heartening finish to their National Basketball League campaign.
The Rams' comeback season looked destined to be a disaster at the midway stage after 10 losses in 11 games.
With only pride to play for, Canterbury had every reason to roll over, but were able to grow in confidence as they accumulated wins.
They closed out the season as one of the hottest teams in the league, winning five of their last seven games to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon.
Plenty of adversity was overcome in the back-end of the season with American import and the team's leading scorer, Glen Dandridge, missing the final five games with an elbow injury.
Key performers Richie Edwards and Marcel Jones both missed a game due to suspension, while skipper Jeremy Kench was ruled out of the team's last home win over Southland with a broken nose.
The Rams' turnaround was built around their improvement on defence.
After an embarrassing 25-point drubbing against the Super City Rangers at Cowles, they worked solely on defence at training over the final five weeks.
It translated through to their performances with Canterbury giving up just 89 points per game over their last seven showings. Opposition teams were able to convert only 41 per cent from the floor over that span - a huge shift from the first 11 outings, where they allowed 94 points per game at 48 per cent shooting.
After three years without an NBL team in Christchurch, following the 2011 earthquake, hoops fans were ecstatic to see top-level basketball back in the city.
The Rams sold out nearly all of their home games at the 1400-capacity Cowles Stadium, with tickets being snapped up several days before the game.
One of the most encouraging aspects of the Rams season was the development of several of their homegrown players, who showed they are capable of being NBL role players.
Point guard Marty Davison made the most of his increased gametime late in the season and was an integral performer in the wins over Otago and Southland. Back-up big man Brent Fisher also had his moments and was outstanding in the final game of the season, notching nine points and eight rebounds in the Southland home win.
Shou Nisbet and James Cawthorn looked the most promising of the Rams' young brigade and should only be better for the experience in the future.
Ethan Rusbatch was one of Canterbury's major success stories, stepping up late in the season when the team's big guns were out.
Rusbatch helped the Rams secure several victories, hitting high-pressure go-ahead baskets late in the game.
If he can continue to work hard over the off-season, he should have a larger role next year and be a cornerstone for the team.
Kench was Canterbury's most reliable performer and did it all for the side with his strong defence, rebounding, passing and ability to put the ball in the hoop.
Jones and Edwards proved to be valuable acquisitions, allowing the Rams to spread the floor on offence and providing increased scoring punch. One wonders how the team would have fared had they been available from the pre-season.
American imports Dandridge and 2.11m centre Matt Rogers both had brilliant games, but others where they were contained.
Dandridge battled a wrist injury early on, before hurting his elbow late in the season, which restricted his play.
He exploded for 37 points against Manawatu in Timaru, equalling the NBL record for three pointers in a game with nine.
When Rogers was aggressive and up for the challenge, he was one of the most dominant centres in the league. There were times when he struggled, either getting into foul trouble or not getting the touches he wanted inside the paint.
Rogers was the league's premier shot blocker, but probably should have hauled down more rebounds given his monstrous size. He was only able to achieve 10 rebounds or more in a game once during the season.
It is always extremely difficult for New Zealand sides to get the same American imports back for consecutive seasons and it would be no surprise to see fresh faces in 2015.
The team's new head coach, who will be employed in a full-time capacity, will have some important decisions to make around personnel. In Kench and Rusbatch, the Rams have two vital members of their starting five. Getting Edwards and/or Jones back would be a boost.
The Rams have enough talented pieces to climb the ladder next season - they just need to become more consistent with their play, especially on defence.
Canterbury must also ensure they show up from the start of the season and not leave their best basketball until the final five weeks.