It has been a tough season so far for the Newcastle Eagles, as COVID-19 and a string of poor performances has led to them being dumped out of the BBL Cup and the BBL Trophy and struggling to gain any momentum going into the Championship, where they have suffered five defeats in six games.
The latest loss against the reigning Championship winners London Lions was particularly disappointing as it came straight after a heartening and characterful overtime win against the Giants and because it saw some of the key Eagles’ offensive threats finding their form.
Ultimately though, it was a first win for the new Lions Head Coach, James Vear, whose team started the games as favorites with bookmakers and powered into a 17-point halftime lead, before beating off an Eagles comeback in the second half, running out as comfortable winners by 103 to 94.
That was the fourth win in six games for the Lions, and they look to be on course once again to challenge for the Championship. In particular, they seem to have raised their game against the Eagles since their narrow loss in the Play-Offs last year – the first Trophy the Eagles had won since 2017.
Although the Eagles won their first meeting of the current Championship, on December 3rd, the Lions had their revenge in the Trophy, dumping Newcastle out of the competition earlier this month, and now have a 2-1 edge over their northern rivals as the season heads to the halfway point.
That win over the Lions back in early December seemed to mark a strange turning point for the Eagles, who went on to lose five consecutive games, including four in the Championship, before edging out the Giants. They have a lot of work to do if they are to get back into contention.
Things have not gone right for the Eagles since the start of the current campaign. Although they came into the season with high hopes of building on their Play-Off success, a combination of COVID-19 absences and poor form meant they were pushed out of the BBL Cup at the first stage.
They weren’t even close to going through, losing seven out of eight games and finishing six points below the fourth team, Sheffield. Given their recent record in that competition, which they have won five times in the last ten seasons, that was a particularly rough start, and things haven’t been all that much better in 2022, even with just the Championship to focus on.
Still, at least Eagles Head Coach Ian MacLeod will have some extra time to work with his players. The Eagles are not back in action until February 4th, when they travel south to take on the Sheffield Sharks, before a home game against the Surrey Scorchers on February 11th, when they will be hoping their home crowd can spur them on and generate some momentum.
The areas for improvement are not a secret. Offensively, the Eagles are flying. Brandon Peel has hit top form in the last couple of games, proving a pivotal factor in the Giants win and contributing a double-double against the Lions.
Rahmon Fletcher and Wesley Person Jr are also playing well, both contributing 22 points in the game against London – and Fletcher was particularly impressive as he missed significant time during the game due to an eye injury, sustained two minutes into the action.
Defensively, however, there are problems. The Eagles have now conceded 100 points in consecutive games, and while that might not be a big deal in the high-scoring NBA, in the BBL, where teams are conceding an average of 86.4 per game, that’s a problem.
In fact, the Eagles are conceding a little over 90 points a game so far in the Championship, a defensive record that is poorer than every other team except for Glasgow.
Fixing the defense will be the key to getting some momentum in February. There are reasons to be optimistic. The Sharks have been in the top four for most of the season so far, but they are strangely vulnerable at home, where they’ve lost their last three. After the Sharks, the Scorchers – currently bottom of the Championship, present an excellent opportunity to pick up a vital win.
Victory there could set the team up nicely for a brace of games against struggling Glasgow, before they recommence hostilities with the Lions. If they can go into that game with three or four more wins under their belt, they will feel more confident about leveling matters with London and about the remainder of the season, particularly their chances in the Play-Offs.