REWIND the clock only six weeks and Mike Ellis finally felt like he had cracked the code to unleash the full potential of his Warwick Senators team, but that old self doubt has crept back in since and he is hoping they can turn things back around in time for a playoffs assault.
Ever since Ellis returned to be the head coach at the Senators in 2016, he has never been concerned if he has had enough talent to work with to be a championship contender in the SBL, what he saw as the great deficiency was the self-belief within the group to actually thing they could go all the way.
After first round playoff eliminations in 2016 to the Willetton Tigers and 2017 to the Geraldton Buccaneers, Ellis did think he had broken through with the group last year when they broke through that quarter-final barrier by eliminating the defending champion Perth Redbacks.
While they went on to lose in the semi finals to arch-nemesis’ the Joondalup Wolves, Ellis liked enough of what he had saw in terms of the growth in the group to want to bring the squad back together including import duo Justin King and Rob Anshila.
With Cody Ellis and Caleb Davis remaining committed too and the core group of Ash Litterick, Jay Thwaites, Tom Witts and Oliver Cross retained, Ellis felt that this could be the year for the Senators if they could build on what they started in 2018.
They ultimately ended up without the services of point guard Corban Wroe, which in turn became their great strength with teenage sensation Wani Swaka Lo Buluk carrying a lot of the point guard duties and in turn making the Senators incredibly long and athletic.
Suddenly with the length and spring of him along with Ngor Manyang having a career-best season and with Anshila proving a difference-maker above the rim, the Senators were rolling.
After losing twice in seven days to the Wolves and Giants away, they strung nine wins together and would win 12 of 14 matches before things started to go awry.
As it would turn out, it all coincided with the absence of their 18-year-old point guard as well with Swaka Lo Buluk representing Australia at the Under-19 World Championships.
In his absence, they won just three of eight matches and Ellis was concerned that the same old team trails of self-doubt under pressure was creeping back in despite having five players with more than 100 games of SBL experience which doesn’t even include the experience of Davis, King and Anshila.
While Ellis would never blame the absence of one 18-year-old rising star for his team’s downturn in form, there’s no doubt it had an impact.
While he feels like the group should have been able to hold things together even without Swaka Lo Buluk, the fact is now he’s back and he helped significantly in last Saturday’s 30-point win over East Perth.
And even more encouragingly, having initially likely seeing him depart for college during the playoffs, he has now decided against that career pathway and signed on at the Perth Wildcats to be a fully contracted NBL player which should make him available for Ellis and the Senators the rest of 2019.
That’s good news for Ellis because he hopes that with him back in the line-up, they can get back to where they were starting this Friday night at home to the Rockingham Flames.
“It probably is too simplistic to say it’s just down to Wani going out, but I also don’t think you can totally discount what his absence meant either. He brings a very different thing to the group that we can’t replace,” Ellis said.
“His penetration and his ability defensively, and his length and all that certainly helps in every area of our game. But the kid is only an 18-year-old kid, you can’t say that because he was out of the group we should just fall in a whole.
“We have too many experienced players for that to happen so I think if we went down that road, that would be a pretty pathetic excuse for us to use to be honest.”
Ellis isn’t sure if the Senators would be ready to reach their potential should the playoffs start right now.
But he knows that things can quickly get back on track and strong performances to close the regular season against Rockingham, Mandurah and Geraldton could very well be the tonic to reinstall that belief in the playing group that they can still achieve something special.
“Right now I don’t think they are ready to make that statement we hoped we could this season. I have no question we are capable of it, but I don’t think they are ready to right now and that’s what we need to address, talk about and get to,” he said.
“Right now it’s a build that we have to try to get back to where we were a couple of months ago. We have to try and continued to build from here and all things going well, we have six weeks to get our shit together and if we can do that, then we’ll end up in the Grand Final but the key is for the guys to believe they can get there.”
Having worked so hard over the past three years to not only build a team physically capable of contending for an SBL championship, but who was mentally strong enough to actually believe that, Ellis is a little frustrated they did take a step backwards over the past six weeks.
He thought they were beyond that, but now there is still time to pull it out of the fire this season even though a top four finish looks beyond them.
Ellis still has faith they can turn things around, it’s all about the players’ mindsets now.
“The biggest thing for us is to get the boys to believe in themselves and that’s been my biggest focus since the moment I got the job, because talent was never an issue,” Ellis said.
“The disappointing thing for me is that I know what they are capable of and we showed what we are capable of earlier in the season. For them to not believe in what they are capable of, I struggle with the concept that they don’t believe they are good enough to do this.
“That’s the frustrating thing for me, we just have to breakthrough and I am confident we can still do that this year. But we still have a bit of work to do if we are going to achieve what we want to achieve.”