Ahead of a blockbuster game against the Perth Wildcats, Melbourne United coach Dean Vickerman says preparations are going exceptionally well after one of the team’s best training sessions.
United have the best defensive rating and returned to their hard-nosed defence ways, restricting the Brisbane Bullets to only 68 points on 38 per cent shooting, and the South East Melbourne Phoenix to 78 points on 35 per cent shooting, despite allowing bottom-placed Adelaide 36ers to score 96 points on 45 per cent shooting.
Vickerman credited lead assistant Jacob Chance for taking on the responsibility of raising the intensity levels.
“I think we saw just the buy-in and what we wanted to do on a greater understanding of really the first day of scout and how we wanted to defend them. So health is good and really good energy with the group,” Vickerman said.
United’s biggest challenge for the last six years will be coming up with a team-first strategy to mitigate Wildcats’ superstar Bryce Cotton and his magnetic shot-making.
In the last eight games, the three-time MVP is averaging 27 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists, despite only shooting 42 per cent from the field and 32.4 per cent on threes.
In the team’s previous meeting on November 6, Cotton scored 24 points, despite having a torrid five of 17 shooting performance, in the Wildcats’ thrilling 102-95 overtime win. Cotton has hurt United several times, including hitting the game-winner early in the NBL20 season at John Cain Arena.
“It’s a big task and I think we’re just obviously at different times put that weight on Shea (Shea Ili) and Delly (Matthew Dellavedova) a little bit more,” Vickerman said about his two-elite perimeter defenders.
“I think we’ve spread the weight a little bit over the whole group that everybody’s got to be more involved in trying to slow down Bryce, from the point of entry of the ball coming in bounds to the last second of the shot clock.”
The blockbuster encounter will be part of the Open Air game at John Cain Arena, which has been a staple of United’s home fixture since the first instalment in 2015.
As for the battle between the red-hot teams, with United sitting four games clear on top and the Wildcats sitting third, having won seven of eight, Vickerman believes the encounter will have a “playoff intensity” feel about it.
“I’m trying to talk to the boys about it, every game is the same. But the stage is a little bit different sometimes and the stage of this one – the third time that we play them and we’ve won one each. Open Air game and sold out and Christmas and all these things the stage is going to be a little bit different,” Vickerman said.
The game will mark the third time Luke Travers goes up against his former team. He only played 47 seconds in the previous encounter after copping a head knock.
In his first season with United, the combo forward has been an integral piece in the team’s success, due to his facilitating, his much-improved jumper, and his ability to push the ball in the open floor.
Another telling storyline is the battle of the big men between Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and Ariel Hukporti up against Keanu Pinder and touted NBA number-one draft pick Alex Sarr.
Lual-Acuil and Hukporti were clinical in the Throwdown dismantling of cross-town rivals South East Melbourne Phoenix, combining for 10 blocked shots, with Lual-Acuil applying seven blocks and Hukporti three.
Vickerman sees additional motivation for the pair to put their best foot forward.
“There’s always little games within the game and I think Ariel and Jo, whoever they’re playing against, it’s like as a team we’ve got to go and beat these other centres. And Sarr having that little tag on him right now, a top-five draft pick and potentially number one and Ariel still probably being in the last 40 or 50s,” he said.
“There’s certainly an incentive for him to come out and drop the things he does well against him.”