Melbourne United and the Perth Wildcats finished 1st and 2nd respectively after the regular season and are expected to be among the favourites to win the NBL Championship. (Credit: Blair Burns)

Melbourne United and the Perth Wildcats finished 1st and 2nd respectively after the regular season and are expected to be among the favourites to win the NBL Championship. (Credit: Blair Burns)

It will be 18 days between games when minor premiers Melbourne United take to the court in two Thursday’s time, and looks to be a difficult juggling period for the side whose momentum never wavered during the course of the regular season.

Despite having the early season injury blues, which saw centre Jo Lual-Acuil Jnr, sharpshooting guard Ian Clark, and Matthew Dellavedova miss significant periods of time, the side would always find a way to win through its mountainous depth across the squad.

The team’s mantra of next man up, while using their physicality and on and off-court connection as strengths have been vital towards producing a 20-win regular season.

“The core of who we are is about the physicality, the connection, how many sessions can we get in, in that type of extreme load,” coach Dean Vickerman said.

“I think that’s the biggest one for us, our guys really want to build up. We’re going to play teams that have played two games so how do we replicate that, how do we prepare ourselves for that.”

Consistency, Resilience and Depth

“Whenever we’ve had a bit of a poor performance, we’ve really bounced back” – Dean Vickerman

A major part of United’s success this season has been their ability to bounce back strongly from losses, helping them avoid any consecutive losses this season which has allowed them to maintain their stranglehold on the NBL’s Championship favouritism.

Even after short turnarounds and their very worse losses, United have found a way to respond perfectly with the roar of a sold-out John Cain Arena crowd keeping their spirits high and assisting them in prevailing in many heavyweights battles this season.

“As you’ve seen through the season whenever we’ve had a little bit of a poor performance, we’ve really bounced back,” Vickerman said.

“So, coming off this little break, we’ve got to feel that little bounce back right from the get-go and make sure mentally there’s a switch there, that our intensity is at a crazy level to go ahead and start this playoff series.”

Vickerman says the way his side has performed through the regular season, along with the even contributions by all has created mounting confidence in his side’s ability to perform well in big games.

“We’ve got a trust in this group that people can come off the bench and do a role that’s kind of more than they average throughout the year, because they’ve had moments,” he said.

Whatever needs to happen. We’ve got guys there that can go ahead and step up, everyone kind of talks about “you guys are so talented.” We didn’t build this team as the most talented roster.”

“We built this team on high IQ, great culture guys, guys that are committed to the defensive end and really want to win.”

Culture and Connection

“We’ve got guys that can go ahead and step up”

Coming into the NBL24 season, Dean Vickerman and his coaching staff weren’t focused on talent, talent alone won’t win you NBL Championships… they needed to bring in players that bought into the club’s culture and were able to connect with each other strongly.

“Trying to find culture fit was really important and we spent a lot of time in interviews and then talking to opposition coaches, just going into much more depth with the people that we recruited this year,” Vickerman said.

“We didn’t win games without Shea Ili last year and so [the question was] how could we have enough coverage. There’s a lot of pieces to this puzzle. We’ve seen different people have different moments throughout the year.”

Whilst United’s squads’ talent is abundantly clear, something as simple as having a great club culture, good connection on and off the court and strong depth within their squad, might be the simple most integral part towards getting them this far during the 2023/24 NBL season.

A player that has perfectly encapsulated culture, connection and depth this season is Rob Loe. Some might not associate the NBL veteran with Melbourne United, but his role this season cannot be understated.

After announcing his retirement at the end of NBL23, a former long-time coach of Loe’s, picked up the phone and called the former New Zealand Breakers star. It was Dean Vickerman on the other end of the phone line.

After finding out that star centre Jo Lual-Acuil would miss the opening month of the season, the three-time NBL Championship winning coach convinced Loe to prematurely come out of retirement to fill an important role for his side.

With his experience and knowledge, Loe helped the team to a 7-1 start to get their campaign off to a brilliant start. This was before Lual-Acuil returned from injury, with the 32-year-old New Zealander quietly slipping back into retirement. That act alone is indicative of the selflessness and unrelenting culture that has become a staple of United’s play.

Left to Right: Melbourne United’s Nick Truelson, Dean Vickerman, Shea Ili, Chris Goulding, Ian Clark and Jo Lual-Acuil Jnr all took home awards at the Andrew Gaze MVP Awards Night. Ili, Goulding, Clark and Lual-Acuil will be crucial to their team’s chances in the playoffs.

Hunger, will to win

“There’s one real reason why we’re here… to win a Championship” – Chris Goulding

The very best teams have always had a relentless desire to win, it doesn’t matter what has happened during the season, the players on a winning team will run themselves into the ground before loosening their grip on the silverware.

This is something that has always been a part of the NBL’s greatest teams. Squads like the Andrew Gaze led Melbourne Tigers team in the 1990’s had this in spades and it’s something that will make Melbourne United so hard to stop on their quest towards Championship glory.

“I think like every year, there’s a reason we play, the individual awards are nice and [its the] cherry on the top or whatever it may be, but there’s one real reason why we’re here and that is to win a Championship,” Goulding said.

“There’s a desire to win in big games and to win for your teammates and your club, we’ve got a lot of guys on our team that have that desire, so I’m looking forward to getting it (the playoffs) started.”

No matter what has happened during the season, the scoreboard resets for every team involved in the playoff campaign, but having a competitive, hardened squad with a blend of different sorts of players could prove decisive come the end of the playoff’s series for United.

“A whole new season starts now, I think getting some rookies, some veterans together in one environment we’re there is one goal and it’s winning, and trainings are competitive, sometimes a little too competitive [but it has helped us],” Goulding said.

‘We’re digging, we’re really going to see a mindset shift in the group.

There’s no… alright we’ll back up two days later if we lose this game or whatever it is. Backs are against the wall now whether we like it or not, I think that’s an environment that we’re going to flourish in.”

Chasing that dream

“If you are ever lucky enough to have that opportunity… you want to grab it.”

It is every lover of basketball’s dream as a kid to grow up and play professionally, and if they are to make it to the big time, they want to do more.

Wanting to win is human nature, not because of the medal you get or the fancy confetti and merchandise that fills the room wherever you go, but the feeling it gives you.

It’s an addiction that can only be fuelled by winning a Championship and basking in the glory with your teammates and dearest friends. It provides lifelong bonds and never-ending memories. That feeling is something that United captain Chris Goulding and his team strive for every day.

“Growing up you remember moments watching MJ, Scottie in big moments and for the most part they’re in finals. I remember sitting on the coach with my Dad, Wednesdays and Saturdays watching NBL.”

“Watching finals and big moments, I guess it’s ingrained in you. [Things] you remember growing up as a kid, so if you are ever lucky enough to have that opportunity [to win a Championship] you want to grab it.”

Minor Premiers… the mental battle

Being the best team all season can do one of two things to a team. It gives the squad an overwhelmingly sense of confidence that makes them unbeatable, like what was seen with the dominant era of the Chicago Bulls in the NBA.

It can also create unnecessary pressures on a team, reading into everything that is said in the media or in public, will the consensus being that the team is in line to be Champions. Rather than it being a question of if they will win, it becomes when will they win.

When things don’t go your way, dark clouds and doubt can creep in causing a player or team to unravel like never before.

Goulding said that favouritism can be a mental battle, but his side is focusing on playing their best basketball, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself on their way to the NBL title.

“You wrestle with that in your head, you try to link some things together to give yourself peace of mind at night, you also look back to times when you haven’t been as successful to try and see some things that you want to stamp out,” he said.

“I think when we’re playing our best basketball, we’re going to be really tough to beat, it’s just a matter of how consistently and how often we can bring that out.”

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