THE Geraldton Buccaneers are on their first losing streak of the SBL season, but coach Ray Evans is looking forward to a challenging last three weeks with four road games with his big man veteran Mat Wundenberg desperate for that elusive championship at the end of it.
The Buccs have lost their past two games starting in a nail-biter with top spot at stake to the Willetton Tigers at Willetton Basketball Stadium.
That will go down as one of the games of the season so the Buccaneers still took plenty from it despite suffering their first road loss of 2017 and likely losing the chance at the minor premiership.
Then the Buccs were back home at Active West Stadium on Saturday night and suffered the upset defeat of the season with the bottom placed Mandurah Magic coming away with the five-point victory.
It’s just the fourth loss of the season for Geraldton and the first time they have come back-to-back ahead of a challenging road double this weekend against the Perth Redbacks and Joondalup City Wolves.
The game against the Wolves on Sunday takes on extra significance with a win for the Buccs just about securing a top two finish while a loss leaves the door open for the Wolfpack to leapfrog them over the past fortnight.
The Buccs then remain on the road next weekend to face two more playoff bound teams the Stirling Senators and Cockburn Cougars before finishing the regular season at home to the Perry Lakes Hawks.
That is certainly a challenging final five games of the regular season but if the Buccs can bounce back from this current two-game losing run, then they will enter the playoffs in some good and well-tested form which coach Evans is looking forward to.
“We have been good on the road all year but we have another four tough road games coming up against Redbacks, Wanneroo, Cockburn and Stirling so it doesn’t get any easier,” Evans said.
“It’s a tough run home but we wouldn’t want it any other way than to play a lot of the top teams on the road. It’s going to be like that in finals so it will hopefully give us some confidence and show where we’re at.”
Whether this season is the last or not for Buccs captain Mat Wundenberg remains to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine a player in the league more deserving of a championship than the inspirational big man.
Wundenberg celebrated his 350-game SBL milestone earlier this season and remains only behind Geraldton basketball legends Greg Brown (423), Evans (412), Jason Bunter (411) and Dan Hunt (382) on the games played list.
He is still a strong force inside too for the Buccs taking on all the league’s powerhouses averaging 6.5 points and 8.7 rebounds a game.
What he is missing from his career is a championship, though, and having played with a host of more than deserving veterans back in the Buccs last triumph of 2000, Evans would love nothing more than to help Wundenberg achieve his dream.
“I played with Dan Hunt and when we finally won it in 2000 there were a heap of deserving guys like him who had been through a lot and come close for many years. To finally win it in 2000 with Dan Hunt was pretty special and that’s a similar scenario to what Maty’s in now,” he said.
“He is desperate to try and get that championship. He is one guy that puts everything into his preparation and getting his body right, and I guess as you get older you realise the work you need to put in to be able to play every week. He does that and he is our leader.
“He’s very vocal and he always leads from the front with his defence and rebounding. He hasn’t talked about next year and I don’t think he’s thinking about it, he just wants to win a championship. Whether that is this year or not, we’ll try to do anything we can to help him achieve that goal.”
The Buccs are obviously far from a one man team with Mo Barrow, Matt Hancock, Aaron Ralph and Alex Ducas contributing strongly with Jackson Hussey running the point, and Wundenberg and James Paringatai doing the heavy lifting inside.
But it is hard to ignore the impact Dwayne Benjamin is having at the Buccs in his first SBL season out of college at the University of Oregon.
He must be right up there in MVP voting with 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists a game while shooting 53.2 per cent from the field, 37.3 per cent from downtown and 80.8 per cent from the free-throw line.
More than the numbers, Benjamin has delivered a host of match-winning performances highlighted by 42-point games against the East Perth Eagles and Perth Redbacks, and another six games of 30 points or more.
Evans couldn’t be happier with what he has brought to the Buccs this season but has no doubt Benjamin cares more about team success more than any individual awards.
“Dwayne has really grown as the season has come along and he’s understanding the league a lot more, and where he gets his points from. He is probably being a bit more aggressive as well, which is good,” he said.
“But in saying that, other guys on the team might take some votes off him when it comes to the MVP. Dwayne is the kind of guy who wouldn’t even care about the MVP.
“He worries about his team and not once has he demanded to have the ball at any stage of the game like some imports do. He is a complete team player and is playing his role within the group.”
Hussey is also proving one of the best point guards in the SBL in his second season with the Buccaneers having arrived during the first half of 2016 to inspire them to a run to the semi finals.
On the back of a chance in the NBL with the Perth Wildcats this past season, he has gone up another level again in 2017 in the SBL in terms of his all-round game.
He is a tremendous playmaker and distributor, can create his own shot, get to the rim and hit a knockdown jumper while his defence is also strong.
He can influence a game in so many ways and Evans would rather no other player running the Buccs from the point.
“Huss is a good leader and always hits some big shots, and makes huge plays for us whenever we need,” Evans said.
“He didn’t get his chance in the NBL last season without deserving it and that experience continues to help him.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)