Six franchises now sit above .500
By José Colorado
It looks like the path to the NBLC championship just got that much tougher.
For the first time in the 2018 - 2019 season there are a league-high six teams above .500 and playing winning basketball as the Sudbury Five and Halifax Hurricanes joined that list this past week by going undefeated at a combined 4-0 (win-loss) mark.
With the Moncton Magic initially jumping ahead of the pack by such a large margin, it was admittedly tough slogging for a few weeks to find a compelling adversary.
The St. John's Edge emerged afterwards however with the Cape Breton Highlanders and Windsor Express following suit.
Needless to say with the Five and 'Canes now hitting their strides with a little over a month-and-a-half remaining in the regular season, it appears there will be no easy 'outs' when the dust settles for playoff match ups come April.
1. Moncton Magic (17-8)
LW RANK: 1 | LW Record: 1-1 | Upcoming Schedule: St. John's, Cape Breton
Moncton may have had their four-game winning streak snapped this past week but they responded in a big way as the club went 1-1 in a home-and-home series with the Saint John Riptide.
An offensive struggle dispelled the Magic in its first encounter with the Riptide as Moncton conceded a 90-83 defeat on Feb.6, being held to just 37.5 per cent shooting from the floor and 27.6 per cent from three-point range.
The game marked the second lowest scoring output of the season and just the fourth time this season that Joe Salerno's club has been held within the 80s.
That all changed four nights later however as the Magic made a statement in a 111 – 76 blowout win –by far the largest margin of the victory for the team thus far this season.
In that match the club was buoyed by an excellent floor game as Moncton recorded a season-high 28 points to just 14 turnovers while notching 11 steals.
Off-nights are bound to happen in a season as long as the NBLC but how one responds to them reveals a great deal more about the long-term moxie, spirit and determination a team carries.
For that, Moncton remains No.1 spot.
2. St. John's Edge (15-9)
LW RANK: 1 | LW Record: 2-1 | Upcoming Schedule: @Moncton, @Saint John, Windsor (Twice)
Had it not been for a tricky match up it's likely the Edge would have come away unscathed following a three-game road trip but a 2-1 mark is still more than acceptable.
In a trio of hotly contested affairs the league's leading three-point shooting team sizzled once more as some impressive marksmanship carried St. John's to a pair of wins.
Versus the Highlanders (105 -100) and Island Storm (115 -113), Doug Plumb's club used a combined 23-of-49 (47 per cent) three-balls to snag a pair of victories.
Perhaps more notable however is the fact that the Edge connected on 43-of-51 (84.31 per cent) free throws – a mark well above its 77 per cent seasonal average.
Then there was the kryptonite – the Hurricanes.
Of St. John's nine losses, four have come to Halifax, three to Moncton and two to London.
Indeed the Edge still gets one last crack at the latter two but the franchise may have to potentially wait until the NBLC finals to figure out Halifax, should both get there, as the Central division team was outlasted 104 – 98 –completing the season series 4-1 in favour of the 'Canes.
There isn't much time for reflection however as four games are on the slate this week starting with the Magic Tuesday.
3. Sudbury Five (15-13)
LW RANK: 5 | LW Record: 2-0 | Upcoming Schedule: @Windsor, @London
After nearly two months of inconsistency the Five have suddenly put together its best stretch of basketball in franchise history, winning six of its last seven.
The latest pair of victories came by way of an impressive three-point shooting night and a stellar defensive effort as the Five took down the KW Titans 116 - 115 on Feb.7 and the Highlanders 109 -99 on Feb. 9 at Sudbury Arena.
In the former match, Coach Logan Stutz's sharpshooters scorched from beyond the arc as the Five connected on 16-of-40 (40 per cent) long-distance shots while in the latter bout Sudbury held its foe to just 35.1 per cent shooting from the floor.
When it comes to the Northern Ontario boys, significant strides have been made in multiple areas of late.
Firstly: the bench.
Previously the club had depended heavily upon its starters to buoy its team to victories but with the addition of Mamadou Gueye to the roster it looks like the Five have a legitimate sixth man on its hands.
The former U Sports standout is averaging 16.7 points per game and six rebounds in his first three games.
After having not held a single opponent under 100 points in its first 24 matches, the team has now done achieved that mark twice in its past four outings.
Sudbury has long been one of the league's offensive leaders but if they are able to defend on a nightly basis, they may just have a legitimate shot at making it out of the Central.
4. Halifax Hurricanes (15-12)
LW RANK: 6 | LW Record: 2-0 | Upcoming Schedule: Saint John
Two convincing wins has the Hurricanes sliding back into the top four as Mike Leslie's club took care of the Island Storm (101 -83) and then dispatched the Edge (104 – 98).
Indeed such a result would perhaps be expected against the former especially when considering the league's worst-placed club was on its last legs following a back-to-back-to-back.
With the Edge however things really get interesting.
Simply put, Halifax has St. John's number.
The 'Canes won the season series 4-1, handed the league's second-best team its worst loss in franchise history just two weeks earlier and toyed with the club in its latest match up leading by as many as 19 points in the fourth quarter with Mike Poole having target practice.
With Halifax holding its third three-game win streak of the season, it's likely the team could push it to as many as six games as the league's two worse teams, the Riptide and the Storm, alongside the Magic each visiting Halifax in the coming weeks.
5. Windsor Express (14-12)
LW RANK: 3 | LW Record: 1-2 | Upcoming Schedule: Sudbury, @St. John's (Twice)
After playing revitalized basketball for about a month's time, the Express have regressed back to the mean, losing four of its last six matches.
That stench of mediocrity was on full display in week 13 as Windsor went 1-2 in a triple header against the London Lightning.
In a 121 – 88 win on Feb. 6, Windsor held its opponents to its second-lowest total of the season, stifling the Bolts to 35.3 per cent from the floor and 20.8 per cent from long distance.
From there however the flood gates opened up as Bill Jones' club was blasted in the succeeding two losses, allowing a combined average of 139.5 points per game.
Granted the Express and Lightning did play in a double-overtime thriller that ended in a 147 - 144 score line in favour of London on Feb.7.
But even so, the Express still relinquished 114 points in regulation and an absurd 20 points in the second overtime frame.
Windsor's oh-lay defense picked up right where it left off in the final match between the two clubs as the City of Roses was outscored 44-19 in the first quarter – ultimately an insurmountable margin.
Things don't get much easier from here as the Five and Edge await - teams Windsor has only managed a combined 2-4 record against thus far.
6. Cape Breton Highlanders (14-13)
LW RANK: 4 | LW Record: 0-3 | Upcoming Schedule: @Moncton
Another round of winless games has the Highlanders reeling as the club is currently in the midst of a six-game losing streak – its worst skid of the season.
Shooting and rebounding can be singled out as two of the most obvious culprits for Cape Breton's futility as the team was outboarded in each of its three games, combining for a 156 – 131 deficit in total.
And while the Cape was able to hit at a respectable 45.2 per cent clip against the Edge in a 105 -100 loss on Feb.4, the club went cold in its latter two matches, nailing just 63-of-182 (35 per cent) attempts from the floor.
Missed shots mean missed opportunities but that can be salvaged – to some degree - with offensive boards and second chance points on multiple efforts.
And indeed, Cape Breton did win those respective categories in the majority of its games.
The only problem was the disparity simply wasn't enough to overcome the shooting efficiency difference.
With three games left on its current five-game road trip some face can still be saved but it will be difficult as the Highlanders head to Avenir Centre for a pair of matches – a location the club hasn't won at yet this season.
7. London Lightning (15-16)
LW RANK: 8 | LW Record: 3-1 | Upcoming Schedule: Sudbury, Kitchener-Waterloo
Changes were made and feelings were likely hurt but at the end of the week the Lightning came away with a 3-1 mark – and that's likely all the franchise cares about at this point.
Following a 121 – 88 thrashing in which the Lightning shot just 20.8 per cent from three-point land, coach Elliott Etherington elected to pull veteran Alex Johnson – who had started the previous five games – from the starting line up in exchange for Marcus Capers.
The move worked beautifully.
With Capers – who averaged 17.33 points per contest on 59 per cent shooting as a starter - working alongside the unit the offense thrived as the Bolts averaged 138 points per game the rest of the way, resulting in three wins including two 20-plus point victories.
London has now won three in a row with four-games remaining on its current five-game homestand, making for a great opportunity for them to take the final playoff spot in the Central division.
8. KW Titans (12-13)
LW RANK: 7 | LW Record: 1-2 | Upcoming Schedule: @London
A week of sub.500 basketball was overshadowed by a scary fall from Greg Morrow in the Titans 101 – 91 win over the Highlanders on Feb. 10.
ℹ️ Status report on Greg Morrow. pic.twitter.com/LZqOhJkcx0— KW Titans (@kw_titans) February 11, 2019
With KW already down a key reserve in Joel Friesen for the past six games and Morrow now likely out for the foreseeable future, the squad must now rely heavily on others to provide long distance relief and floor spacing as both players were above 43 per cent from downtown before getting injured.
Akeem Ellis (37.6 per cent three-point shooting), Tramar Sutherland (36.9 per cent) and Damon Lynn (36.9 per cent) come as the most likely candidates given their penchants to take – and make - the homerun ball.
But with the added adversity and a nasty 134 -108 blowout loss to the Lightning still fresh in mind, expect a determined KW team to come out this Sunday as it has another crack at London.
9. Saint John Riptide (9-17)
LW RANK: 9 | LW Record: 2-1 | Upcoming Schedule: St. John's, The Island, @Halifax
The Riptide have quietly been playing respectable basketball for a while now going .500 over the last 30 days at 5-5, including 2-1 this past week.
If excluding a 111 -76 smacking at the hands of the Magic on Feb.10 in which the club set a season-low in points then the club has competed exceedingly well over the past month having lost by seven or less points in all of its other defeats.
That spells danger come playoff time as close games, match up scenarios and pressure can cause some uncharacteristic occurrences to happen with all the marbles on the line.
If Saint John is able to defend anywhere near its week 13 level in its pair of wins – as it held its opponents to 76 points on 32 per cent shooting from the floor - they will always have a chance.
Sure with only a month and change remaining in the regular season and the team's record so far behind the next franchise, the Riptide may not budge from the No.8 spot the rest of the way.
But that doesn't mean they won't upset someone come April.
10. Island Storm (5-18)
LW RANK: 10 | LW Record: 0-3 | Upcoming Schedule: @Saint John
Heavy legs might have done the Storm in on the back end of a back-to-back-to-back as the last-placed club went winless in week 13, going ice cold in its final two games.
The Storm held tough with the Edge in a 115 -113 overtime thriller on Feb. 7 but ultimately with Tim Kendrick's squad conceding a 50-50-81 shooting split (field goal, three-pointers, free throws) to St. John's along with a 53 -39 rebounding deficit, the victory was too hard to come by.
Following that valiant effort however the franchise went lifeless as it shot below 30 per cent from the floor and 19 per cent from long range in both of its blowout losses to the Riptide (90-69, Feb.8) and the Hurricanes (101-83, Feb.9).
With only one game scheduled for this week – that being against Saint John on Thursday, the Storm will have as good of an opportunity as possible to snap its current three-game slide; the season series is currently tied at 2-2.