MIKE Ellis took on the job with the Warwick Senators to build a winning culture and belief in the playing group with which they took big steps forward last year and with the majority of the group back, he hopes for more in 2019.
Ellis, one of the most legendary basketball names in Western Australia, took on the job at the Senators as coach of the Men’s SBL team back in 2016 having been watching on with a degree of frustration with them not quite able to break into the top echelon of contending teams.
It has been somewhat of a slow build with first round playoff exits in 2016 and 2017 respectively against the Willetton Tigers and Geraldton Buccaneers. But they broke through for a series win last year in the quarter finals against the defending champion Perth Redbacks.
While they went on to lose to the Joondalup Wolves in the semi finals, it was a significant step forward to reach the semi finals and on the back of that, Ellis saw little reason to change and he wanted to bring stability to the playing group.
While Corban Wroe is a significant loss as point guard, imports Justin King and Rob Anshila return along with Cody Ellis, Ash Litterick, Caleb Davis, Jay Thwaites, Logan Thwaites, Oliver Cross and Tom Witts.
There are a couple of handy additions in the form of Ngor Manyang and Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, but ultimately it’s the stability in the group that Ellis wanted to create and that’s what he is happiest about in regards to the Senators as they tackle the 2019 season.
“Our plan after the end of last year was that I had spent three years trying to change the culture in the club for it to have a winning mentality where they stopped hoping to win, and expected to win,” Ellis said.
“I think we started to get there and each you start again, but it is sort of there and they are starting to get that belief. If you have a look at the teams to have won championships or been in Grand Finals they pretty much have had the same group for a number of years.”
Having worked hard on building on a team that when he took over had only reached playoffs in one of the previous four seasons to now having made finals in each of his three years and winning a series in 2018, Ellis was desperate to bring the majority of the group back.
The biggest part of that was imports King and Anshila with both agreeing to return which meant that the ability to build on what was started to be created last year was a real possibility.
With Davis, Litterick and his son Cody then three more key pieces determined to help the Senators achieve success, Ellis couldn’t be happier but it all had to start with the import pieces falling into place.
“We needed to try to keep the same core and we’ve done that by staying with our two Americans. Not only are they good players, but they are great club guys and for us that’s very important.” he said.
“Keeping the group together was important and I think that will pay off as we go through the season. With Robbie coming in, unfortunately he’ll be late, but he knows the guys and they know him so we won’t have to worry about him finding his feet.
“That really helps bringing both guys back and it was important to us to do that. As a club we want to keep that continuity going.”
The only question mark over Warwick this season is how they go without a genuine point guard with the departure of Wroe.
It’s not something that Ellis believes will be at all an obstacle at the offensive end.
He knows it might create some trouble as they try to defend some of the quicker guards in the league, but overall Ellis is confident the group he has at his disposal is one that can work.
“With the structure we run, we don’t necessarily need to have a specific point guard and I’ve kind of designed things that way because if you have just a point guard, people get keyed in on taking him out and they can cut the head off your snake,” he said.
“But we’re a hydra, we have a number of different heads and that’s what I think is important for us. We’ll miss Corban obviously because of the defensive intensity he brings along with his aggression and attitude, he is fiery and that defensive presence he has is fantastic.
“We’d love to have him but we don’t so there’s no point crying over spilt milk. We have some young kids there and Ollie is one we’ve been blooding the last couple of years who will get more opportunity. He’s probably not ready to start but he can play important minutes.
“We’ve also got Wani here and bringing him in gives us another ball handler along with Justin, Cody and a few others. I’m not that perturbed about not having a specific point guard. It’s something we’ll need to work on defensively but offensively I don’t see it as a major drawback, just a minor inconvenience.”
Ellis is also looking for a big season from his son Cody. Without being burned out at the end of an NBL season, this time he comes into the SBL campaign fresh with the Senators and that should see him play an even more significant role.
“Cody’s a great passer and a very willing passer as well so my thing has always been not to let the ball stick in your hands,” Ellis said.
“If Cody has the ball then you know if someone’s open he’s going to make the pass and that’s when we play well when we are moving the ball as a group.”
Ellis turned 60 in July last year but he still has the energy and passion of a man much younger, and really there’s plenty of evidence of basketball coaches being successful much older than he is.
So age shouldn’t be a factor in how long he continues to coach on at the Senators and Ellis is happy doing the job while the club and players still feel he is the best man for it.
But ultimately, Ellis will walk away either when he’s had enough or when his players have had enough of him. Right now though, all he is thinking is trying to take another significant step forward this year after reaching the semi finals in 2018.
“When I took on the job I took it on for three years with a view to get the culture to where it needs to be. I think we’ve done that to a degree and we did take a step forward last year, but we were just a bit off taking that next step,” Ellis said.
“I thought in the absence of someone else coming in to do the job, I was happy to keep going. I am getting old and it is still tedious at times because I am still working for a living on top of this, but I am still enjoying it and am passionate about it.
“Every year I say I will just relax and take it easier, but the moment the whistle blows that goes out the window. I can’t help myself unfortunately. You have to read how things are going and I also have to take into consideration the guys.
“What I don’t want to do is be here when they’ve had enough of me and they want to hear a different voice.
“When that happens I’m happy to step away and I talk to the guys about all that, I’m quite open with them. I tell them if they are sick of me to just let me know and we’ll find somebody else. But they seem to be OK with it for the moment.”