BELIEF and confidence. Those are the two things that Mike Ellis has been trying to instil in the Warwick Senators for four years and he now feels like the message is coming through with the confidence they are playing with stemming from believing in their abilities.
What Ellis saw when he returned to the Senators in 2016 to take over as head coach was a group full of talent and potential, but one that perhaps lacked the belief that they could do something special and that lacked that drive to go to the next level and push that little harder for the ultimate success.
But it’s been a gradual build over the tenure as coach with the legend of basketball in Western Australia determined to have his playing group truly believe they can raise the first ever SBL banner to the roof at Warwick Stadium.
In Ellis’ first year in charge, the Senators reached the playoffs but were bundled out in the first round by the Willetton Tigers. They again lost in the first round in 2017 but not without pushing the Geraldton Buccaneers to three games.
They then broke through in 2018 eliminating the defending champion Perth Redbacks in the quarter finals before losing to the Joondalup Wolves in a sweep in the semi finals.
But just winning that series over the Redbacks rose the belief in the Senators especially when Cody Ellis, Robert Anshila, Justin King, Caleb Davis, Ash Litterick, Ngor Manyang, Tom Witts, Jay Thwaites and Oliver Cross were all back again.
Then with the potential emergence of Perth Wildcats championship-winning development player Wani Swaka Lo Buluk and there were reasons for optimism from the Senators coming into 2019, and so far they have likely surpassed how good even Ellis thought they might have gone.
Not having a genuine point guard with the departure of Corban Wroe has turned into a great positive with the Senators now more versatile and harder to match up on given their size and length, depth and experience.
They had won nine straight matches after beating the Lakeside Lightning on Friday night and while their winning run ended at Willetton against the Tigers on Saturday, they sit pretty currently in second position at 10-3.
What coach Ellis is noticing in his group is the belief that he’s always wanted them to play with is now starting to show through, especially during that nine-game winning run where at times they did play games, and win without Anshila, Davis, King and Litterick.
Ellis has been heartened by the belief his group took from last year and so far this season has taken it to another level.
“Why we’re playing well is because are believing in each other. Last year we belied to a certain point until we were put under real pressure and then we sort of crumbled away a little bit,” Ellis said.
“They then started to believe which is why we won that series against the Redbacks which was a great win for us and gave us that next kick. But then we stumbled at that next hurdle.
“Now we are starting to believe that we know we can continue to play at this level and we’ve had a number of teams who have gone at us, and we haven’t collapsed and stayed strong.
“We have lost a couple of games but you’re never going to go through a season undefeated, the league is too good for that to happen. But what is nice is how we’ve responded to most challenges.
“They have stayed strong in most instances and they aren’t sitting there and thinking what to do or who to look for. They stay with the plan, play through it and we’ve been able to perform well because of that. Believe is such a massive thing to have, confidence is wonderful to have.”
The Senators are yet to win a championship in the SBL and one thing Ellis has felt has had them back from achieving that is not having the genuine believe that they can do it.
He’s certainly noticed that in the group he took over coaching and over the past couple of seasons, but now he is getting the feeling more and more in 2019 that they genuine believe that they can achieve something special.
“Our target is always to win the championship. When I first took over these guys, I’ve been involved in this club for a long time and I coached a long time ago, but coming back there was no winning belief,” Ellis said.
“They were seemingly happy to make playoffs but our goal is to not just be happy with that. You want to make the finals and you want to put yourselves in the best position to get to the Grand Final, and once you get there when you have a go at winning the championship.
“That’s always been our goal and this year is the first time I think the boys are starting to believe it might really be a possibility. But let me tell you, there’s a long way to go and a lot of work for us to do yet.
“The good thing is that I know we can still get better and I’m not looking at it that we are peaking in May, I’m thinking we can continue to get better and that’s always a good thing.”
Something that appeared capable of being a weakness for the Senators in 2019 but has turned into their great strength is the absence of a genuine point guard.
As good of a floor general as Corban Wroe was, what his departure has meant that the Senators are putting a significantly longer, taller and more versatile line-up on the floor which is working a treat.
While sharing the ball carrying duties between Swaka Lo Buluk, King, Ellis, Davies, Thwaites, Cross and even Witts at times, it is making the Senators tough to guard and so far no team has been able to exploit them with a press.
Then defensively, they are working well together and haven’t been able to be taken advantage of by quick point guards yet while Anshila and Manyang are providing some good rim protection, and Litterick is holding down the starting five spot producing 10.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.
That depth and versatility the Senators have is now proving a great strength and Ellis is happy with the way it’s coming together.
“It is a nice problem to have that’s for sure, we can stick Wani at the point, we can stick Justin at the point and at times we put Cody at the point. Having a 6’8 guy at the point makes him pretty hard to guard,” he said.
“By doing that, you’re able to pass out of double teams and see over the defence, and that really helps. We have smart guys and they know that you just move the ball, and if guys come to the ball we’ll be fine.
“Often if you have a legit point guard they sometimes feel they have to dribble through the pressure. We don’t have that, we pass through it and move the ball that way. That’s been a good thing for us so far.
“But the problem when you have a lot of size is that you still have to be able to guard people and keep them in front of you. That’s been our challenge and I think we’re starting to get much better at that.”
There are plenty of players in tremendous form for the Senators in the first half of the season including Ngor Manyang displaying the best form of his career providing a defensive presence, rebounding well and then putting up 64 points over the past four games.
Anshila now takes on an even more important role with Warwick this year too needing to play as a genuine big and he showed how good he can be in that role last Friday night with 17 points and 10 rebounds in the win against Lakeside.
“Ngor has always been good at the offensive end and we’ve worked a lot with him on his defence and he’s getting better and better. We always say to him that he has so much length, he just has to use it and is starting to do that,” Ellis said.
“Friday night was Robbie’s best game of the season, that was the Robbie that we had at the end of the last season and the one we wanted back this year.
“It’s just taken him a little bit to settle back in and get used to things again but he has been going and playing overseas and it takes a while to adjust to each change in environment.
“But part of why we wanted to bring the same guys back is because it’s not as big a transition when you’ve played with the guys before. That’s starting to bear some fruit now and hopefully he’ll take some confidence out of that and it was big for him to step up especially with Ash sitting out.”