WHILE Kalamunda Eastern Suns had taken steps forward the previous three years, there was still plenty of work for Mark Utley to do when he arrived as coach in 2019 and now even if they go into the finals undermanned, he deserves tremendous credit for them making it.
The Eastern Suns haven’t played finals in the Men’s SBL since 2012 and hadn’t looked like it for a lot of those seasons until they made some steady improvement over the past three seasons under Michael Clarke as coach which saw them only miss the playoffs in 2018.
But when Utley arrived to take over to coach Kalamunda in 2019 to mark his return to the SBL since finishing up his last stint at the Rockingham Flames following the 2016 season, he knew they had plenty of growth still required to step up to be a playoff team.
The first important piece was to keep the core group together and Utley did that with Louis Timms, Ryan Blanchett, Jono Diaz, Carl Aylett, Logan Viskovich and Cooper Lowe all committing to return.
They then added another handy veteran to add size and experience in Corey Easley and to top things off, as far as imports go, there’s not too many better in the league than Josh Braun and Javion Blake.
So Utley got the group together he would have hoped but it’s still been a season where plenty has gone against them.
There’s been no more than five games all season where the Suns were at full strength and then in the last seven games of the regular season they were missing Timms while Viskovich also missed five games in that stretch, Blanchett two and Braun didn’t play last Saturday night due to an ankle sprain against the Joondalup Wolves.
Despite all that, Utley was still able to have the Eastern Suns playing at a high level going on a six-game winning streak which ended up being enough to secure a finals berth before losses the past two weeks to top two teams, Lakeside and Joondalup.
The Suns are now back in the finals for the first time since 2012 as they prepare for their quarter-final battle with the Wolfpack starting on Saturday night at HBF Arena.
Now that the Eastern Suns have got back to the playoffs, their coach and players aren’t afraid of any challenge and it doesn’t get any bigger than a Wolves team who again finished as regular season champions as they chase a fifth consecutive Grand Final appearance.
No matter who he has available, Utley knows his players will give their all and really he’s happy for the stalwarts of the Suns for getting this finals opportunity.
“We are just happy to play anyone. Our goal was to make the playoffs and for the first time in seven years we’ve done that so it doesn’t really matter who we play, we’d be happy to play anyone,” Utley said.
“We will reload now and just see how we go. We have nothing to lose and we haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time so it’s important now for us to enjoy that experience.
“People like Carl Aylett, Cooper Lowe and even for Corey Easley who have played for years and years but he’s enjoying his basketball this year, and Jono it means a lot. We made a decision a few weeks ago to start our leaders in Ryan and Jono and I think that’s paid off for us in terms of character as well.”
While the Eastern Suns to head into the finals having won six of their last eight matches, they have gone through that stretch undermanned in each and every game but you would hardly know it based on the results and performances.
Utley gives credits to his players who have been on the court for that as the culture of the Suns continues to head in a positive direction.
“We try and preach the structure and the process, and keep my system relatively simple so they can do it but it’s been testament to the players that they’ve brought into the system and working on our resilience and making sure we’re ready to go as much as we can,” he said.
“We’ve just been trying to get that positive culture and I’ve been pleased that in my first year, I reckon it took us about the first half of the season to change some bad habits. They’ve started to pay off and now this group staying together in the future can be a really good regular playoff team in the coming years.”
While Josh Braun has produced a brilliant full season for the Eastern Suns as the two guard, the arrival of point guard Javion Blake has given them a completely different look and he has been outstanding.
While Braun is a genuine MVP contender in his own right, Blake would have been too had he played more than the 14 games and Utley is looking forward to seeing how he now goes in finals as Braun desperately tries to get himself somewhere close to full fitness.
“I still hold true that Javion is one of the toughest match ups in the league and he has been a real asset to us,” Utley said.
“One of the things we’ve done is go out and find imports who buy into what we believe, and we’ve got two really good character guys who will hold us true. In the playoffs it’s a completely different series and I’ve been there before.
“It’s about the big scout and the big preparation, and about us getting people like Josh back on the court and we run out against the Wolves.”
Given the terrific job Utley has done to now get Kalamunda into the finals despite all the adversity they’ve been up against it would be a surprise should he not coach on at the Suns in 2020, but he knows you can’t make any assumptions in this game.
“The only reason I won’t be back is if I sit down with the club to decide my future and if they aren’t happy with the job I’m doing, or if there are things in my life that means we’re not heading in the right direction,” Utley said.
“But I’m pretty happy there, the club seems pretty happy with me I think and we’ll sit down and do a review and see where we’re at. You never know with basketball, I’m a realist and it might be something where I’ve done my best and have taken the group to a place I’m pretty proud of and the guys are getting along well but we’ll see how we go.”