The British Basketball League regular season champions Leicester Riders host the Newcastle Eagles Wednesday. The visitors enter Leicester needing just one win from their last three games to clinch the second spot in the league. The position should provide them with an easier route through to the final.
The Leicester Riders clinched the league title with a comfortable 30 point victory over the Plymouth Raiders on Friday, before resting some of their star players in their Sunday trip to London to face the Lions. The Riders were able to match pace with the Lions in the first two and half quarters but ultimately suffered a heavy defeat as the Lions put in a professional performance in the Copper Box.
The Newcastle Eagles enter the clash having suffered a one-point overtime loss at home to the playoff-chasing Surrey Scorchers, having demolished the Glasgow Rocks at home a week earlier.
Both sides will field full-strength teams knowing that they could be playing dress rehearsals of May’s BBL Playoff Final. Both teams will be looking to play these games hard, in an effort to gain a psychological and, perhaps, physical advantage. Newcastle and Leicester are no strangers to meeting in Finals, with the two meeting in both the Cup (won by the Eagles) and the Trophy (Won by the Riders) finals last season.
So far this season they are tied 1-1 in all competitions with the Eagles victorious in their first meeting but the Riders outscoring the Eagles 104-69 at home in the Trophy Quarter Final.
The league’s leading scorer, Newcastle’s Rahmon Fletcher, will be relishing the opportunity to put an exclamation point on another excellent season which could see him retain League MVP honours. Fletcher is also the leader in average assists and it will be fascinating to see him go head to head aginst Tyler Bernardini, an excellent defender and very good distributor of the ball.
Newcastle is the highest average scoring side in the league but will face up against the best defence in the league. Newcastle holds the advantage in three point percentage made and the Riders can go through spells of poor shooting from three. The Eagles must not allow the Riders off the hook when they start missing from beyond the arc, as when the Riders starting making shots they rarely miss. The Riders have punished their last two home opponents for not capitalising on the Riders’ scoring slumps.
The Riders will be leaning heavily upon the rested Sullivan, Hampton, King and Bernardini to come back into the lineup and make an impact against the Eagles. The Eagles do not have the a very deep bench, but the bench does score points, averaging 20.10 points per game. The Riders, who famously go to their bench early and often in games, will look to stretch the Eagles thin and force them into foul trouble. This is a tactic they have used to great effect in recent games against Sheffield, Plymouth and London.
Leicester average 16.47 free throws per game and are shooting 78.04% from the line, compared with Newcastle’s 11.83 shots at a 73.96% shooting. This is an area the game could be lost by the Eagles. When they played London two weeks ago they got themselves in foul trouble and made mistakes in the high energy, loud playoff atmosphere, this game could be won and lost at the foul line if the Eagles play without the discipline required.
The rested Riders will be looking to have a statement in front of their home crowd and have the will and skill to go up against anybody in the league. It is hard to see them not edge this game, but it will be a small margin of 5 points or fewer. The Eagles will play them tough and close, but in the end, the Riders depth will prove too strong.