THE Joondalup Wolves are gearing up nicely for a run at a fourth straight Men’s SBL Grand Final appearance and coach Ben Ettridge is hopeful that having a core group remaining together over that stretch, and the whole team playing from the start of the season will make the difference.
While the fellow teams in the top four entering next week’s opening to the 2018 finals series, the Geraldton Buccaneers, Perth Redbacks and Perry Lakes Hawks all now have very different looking line-ups than what they started the season with, the Wolves have had a stable group throughout.
Given the Wolfpack have reached the past three Men’s SBL Grand Finals leading to a championship win in 2015, and then losses the past two years, there was little reason for Ettridge to look to change too much.
Even going back further, to Ettridge’s run as coach of the Wolves that began with the 2011 championship before he resumed in 2015 and has remained at the helm since, the consistency of the playing group has stood his team apart.
Ettridge is one game away from completing his sixth regular season as coach of the Wolfpack and right now that sees him having compiled a 125-30 record in that time while going on to lead the Wolves to championships in 2011 and 2015, and Grand Finals in in 2016 and 2017.
They are now guaranteed of a second-place finish again in 2018 and Ettridge couldn’t be more proud of the loyal servants like Seb Salinas, Trian Iliadis, Rhys Smyth, Sean Easther, Reece Maxwell, Rob Huntington and Damian Matacz who have remained with Jordan Wellsteed and Ben Ironmonger leading the next generation.
So that group knows what they are doing to get themselves into a position to contend and then fight for a championship year after year, but what Ettridge is also happy about with his team of 2018 is that they’ve been together from before the start of the season.
Imports Jalen Billups and Brian Sullivan have been mainstays of the team the whole way through this season and that’s allowed the Wolves to work on things throughout the season, and manage players were necessary while not trying to integrate new pieces halfway through.
As a result, Ettridge couldn’t be happier gearing up for another playoff campaign with one game left to navigate on Saturday night in Mandurah against the Magic.
“That’s a testament to the guys and it has been since 2011 because that’s where they’ve sat. Some of these guys have played 35 more games over that journey, which is an extra season,” Ettridge said.
“I know it might sound like only 35 games, but that’s a lot of wear and tear. But the guys thrive come August and that’s what they are preparing for. They are proud of what they’re going and we are in control of our own destiny, and that’s the best part.
“What it’s allowed us to do is get some rest into guys like Chris Clausen, Damo, Trian and everyone has had a game off except JB. That’s what we’ve been able to do.
“The teams that are making the surge at the end like Perry Lakes and Lakeside, they’ve added guys halfway through which changed the balance. But our model has been to be whole from the start of the season to set ourselves up where every game doesn’t become do-or-die before you even get to the playoffs.”
As far as the preparation for the playoffs goes, given the group has been together for the entire season and apart from Sullivan and Billups who are new arrivals in 2018, the majority of the rest of the squad has been through this for multiple years now.
So they know what they are doing and what they need to be able to gear up for the finals that await and that’s where Ettridge has put plans in place to ensure everyone is fit and firing at 100 per cent when it matters the most.
“We do all our off-court processes to make sure they are feeling good about themselves but we will start to look towards that first round match up and we’ll have guys who will be in and out over the next two weeks to make sure everyone is ready to go,” Ettridge said.
“It’s when the little, minute details start to come to the forefront and you prepare for special situations. You do want to go in on a high but the playoffs is a long month and now it’s about making sure everyone is ready to go with their minutes down over the next two weeks.
“Everyone is feeling good physically despite that wear and tear you get over the course of the season. But the one thing we have done is keep everyone’s minutes down and even JB is probably down four or five minutes from when he was at Cockburn.
“It’s about getting that good spread across everyone and injecting different guys into the line-up. That way you get different guys stepping up and against Lakeside it was Jordan Wellsteed who was outstanding and Lachy Strelein grabbed a huge rebound. Those guys bring you energy and everyone feeds off that.”
Just because the health of the squad and having guaranteed a top two finish has gone to plan for Joondalup in 2018, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a season without its challenges, and ups and downs.
For a lot of the journey this season, the Wolves sat in top spot and they were unbeaten at their new HBF Arena home. But they copped their first home loss of 2018 at the hands of the Geraldton Buccaneers which saw them concede the series split to the Buccs.
That came the night after a 33-point road loss to the Redbacks in a Grand Final rematch from last year too and then not long after that, the Wolves lost back-to-back thriller away to the Giants and in overtime at home to the Hawks.
But they have bounced back since with good wins over the playoff bound Lakeside Lightning and Rockingham Flames heading into the last game of the regular season on Saturday night against the Magic.
Ettridge always knew teams would be coming at the Wolves as 2018 went on and he’s learned a lot about his group from how they’ve responded to those challenges.
“It’s a testament to the league that everyone is preparing and coming out and giving you their best swing. The Redbacks are going well, the Buccs are going well and everyone is chasing those teams above them,” Ettridge said.
“It’s hunt or be hunted and that’s the mentality. We want to be tested and we want to know that when the game’s on the line we’ve been in that situation before and we know exactly where the ball’s going to go, and how we’re going to defend it. The last month has been tough but we’re learning a lot.”
While the addition of big man Billups has attracted most of the attention at the Wolfpack this season and he has earned that too given he has come across from the Cougars and averaged 24.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting a phenomenal 59 per cent from the field.
But it’s the recruitment of a genuine ball-handling and playmaking import guard that has been the biggest change from the Wolves this season.
Ettridge identified that from the championship year of 2015, the biggest difference the past two seasons was not having that genuine playmaker following the departure of Joel Questel.
As a result, he couldn’t be happier with what Sullivan is providing and he could continue to make the world of difference right throughout the playoffs.
“Brian is great and he is giving us exactly what we wanted. We wanted someone that could actually run our show,” Ettridge said.
“Joel Questel is probably the biggest that we’ve had when he moved away and last year we were good, but we lacked that on-court leader. Ben Ironmonger is who we look at as the heir apparent to Trian with what he can do, but that point guard spot is what we needed help with.
“It’s about recruiting people that fit you and we needed inside scoring and a point guard, and Brian and Jalen are phenomenal.
“If Jalen’s not the MVP then he’s damn close this year and Brian’s that glue guy and how goes often determines how we go. I think they’re both looking forward to playing finals so it’s an exciting time for both of them to take this club as far as they can.”