MARK Utley has always been a coach capable of getting the best out of his teams and that his players love playing for, and it’s no different at the Kalamunda Eastern Suns where he hopes to build something for much more than just 2019.
Utley has come back from two years out of the SBL system which he certainly didn’t use to take a break from basketball, instead he enjoyed the time coaching the Perth Wheelcats but the pull was there to return to the league that he knew so well.
That was firstly as a player of 289 games with the Senators, Magic and Buccaneers, and then up until the end of 2016 he did a tremendous job at the Rockingham Flames.
Not only did he build a competitive team, but he helped set up the generation of young, local Rockingham players that are still there at the Flames today even though they’ve topped up with the likes of Greg Hire and Brad Robbins.
But for Utley, he was initially excited to take on the challenge at the Eastern Suns coming into 2019 and now even though they have some work to do to reach the playoffs with five rounds remaining, he couldn’t be happier with both the players and the club as a whole.
What Utley has put together is a group with a tremendous blend with two strong imports Javion Blake and Josh Braun, the hugely talented Louis Timms and a good group of role players led by Logan Viskovich, Ryan Blanchett, Cooper Lowe, Corey Easley, Jono Diaz and Carl Aylett.
Whether or not they end up reaching playoffs this year, it’s a group that looks capable of being strong for a long time if they can stay together and with Utley at the helm.
While the Suns currently sit on an 8-11 record after last Saturday night’s win at home over East Perth and ahead of this Saturday night’s clash in Kalgoorlie with the Goldfields Giants, they are a team that looks capable of doing some post-season damage should they make it.
That’s why even though over the last month they have gone 1-3, the three losses were competitive showings against championship contending teams in the Hawks, Flames and Senators.
Utley has been happy with the way Eastern Suns have been playing, but they have just not been quite able to finish out the games against top teams aside from a big win in Geraldton.
He only expects the Eastern Suns to continue to get better over the last five weeks.
“Our last month has been quite good despite what the results suggest. We pushed Perry Lakes at home when we were up by seven with two and-a-half to go but just the class of Redhage, Steindl and Smith saw them hit big shots down the stretch,” Utley said.
“We had the Senators last week and just didn’t execute down the stretch, it’s just that change in style of what Mike had been running where they constantly go and bring people in to get good shots has been something that we’ve been conscious of.
“I think as the season goes on and as people learn their roles, we are going to be that team where we’ll have games where people can’t guard us. I think that’s going to be the advantage we have in the finals if we get there.
“We like our chances that if we get into a finals position and if we meet some teams who are towards the top end and are actually starting to get themselves ready for finals, we feel like if we can make it we can peak at the right time. People forget that Javion has only played six games with us so we’re looking forward to hopefully continuing to get better.”
Utley has proven that he can build a program to be successful even if that elusive championship didn’t quite come his way in Rockingham. The Flames had a strong reputation under his coaching and some of the core group he built has been able to stick together since.
So it was an intuitive appointment by the Eastern Suns to sign Utley to build on the work that Michael Clarke had done in recent years to build up a program that had no direction and little positivity, to one that does still appear ready to explode into being an elite SBL team.
Utley is enjoying his first season in charge at Kalamunda and does see it potentially as being a long-term role, but he’s also realistic to know that will only happen if both coach and club remain on the same page with the same vision moving forward.
“Every time you coach you do it as a long-term project, but I’m quite a realist and I often say that if I’m not happy with the direction the club is moving, there’s always other things I can do. And the same if the club is not happy with me, they will move in another direction,” Utley said.
“But as it goes at the moment, I’ve inherited a really good, young program and I’ve got a lot of kids here. In my pre-season, I had 72 players come through so there are a lot of people here with the right attitude pushing forward.
“I do enjoy it up here and for me living in Mandurah means it’s a long drive, but I was driving to Mirrabooka last year for wheelchair basketball so it’s actually closer than that. And I like it up here and I like the people, they are really friendly. The volunteers are great, the club’s great and I’m really enjoying it.”
Sometimes juggling a team with three genuine superstars like the Eastern Suns have in Josh Braun, Louis Timms and Javion Blake can create some tension in terms of which player becomes the man on the team, but Utley has had to deal with little of that.
While it’s still not quite producing the wins the Eastern Suns look capable of, with a big like Timms with a strong inside-outside game, then the all-round brilliance of Braun and Blake running the point over the past six games, the trio are one of the best Big Three combinations in the league.
“They do have a lot of fun playing together even though there’s some times where we’ve had some timing issues with our offence, and timing issues in setting each other up but game by game I see them improving all the time and working for each other,” he said.
“That’s the key – working for each other. You can always have three big superstars, but putting them in a team means they have to play team basketball or it’s just not there.”
But it’s not all about the Big Three for the Eastern Suns. Carl Aylett did an impressive job as point guard before Blake arrived, Ryan Blanchett is coming up huge as a big three man and Jono Diaz is providing good leadership in limited minutes.
Utley couldn’t speak more highly of that group of players who continue to step up in 2019 for Kalamunda.
“We also have some unsung heroes like Jono Diaz and Ryan Blanchett is having a really good year as a three man. People forget that he’s about 6’8 and has been playing as a four and now he’s playing at three, and is having a really good year,” Utley said.
“We have some really good pieces and the good part about our team is that it’s very flexible in terms of night to night guys get minutes and don’t get minutes, but they don’t let it bother them.
“Carl Aylett is a talented kid who was playing a lot of minutes but sometimes at the moment since Javion has arrived and then sometimes if Jofra Diaz is playing a good game, he might not see a lot of court time.
“But that selflessness is what we need as a team and he is helping set the example for that as a young kid.”
The next challenge for the Eastern Suns is a trip to Kalgoorlie on Saturday night to play the Giants and a win will keep them well and truly in the playoff hunt.
“Looking at the run home, the Giants have the potential to finish in the top four and we think that they have a pretty good run home, and they’ll be planning for that. But for us it’s more about the fact that we played them earlier in the season and they actually beat us quite convincingly,” Utley said.
“We weren’t happy with how we played in that game and we think we’ve improved a lot since then, and we want to show that improvement. We went to Geraldton and won up there and as a metro team you set yourselves the goal to win the two road trips. We would like to do that.”