After being dealt a first loss of the NBL D1 season by rivals Manchester Magic last weekend, Reading (3-1) head back home to Rivermead on Sunday hoping to get back to winning ways against Bradford (2-1). Going down 93-88 to the Magic has left Reading Head Coach Manuel Peña Garcés with much to ponder, “Whilst there were a lot of positives to take from Saturday’s game against Manchester, our focus needs to be on two key areas; firstly, missing 14 free throws is unacceptable for us so we have to be better in this area, and secondly, we cannot give up the number of points we are if we are to consistently win games, so work on the defence end is going to be really important and where are focus needs to be.” A number of Reading’s stars will be hoping to build on promising early season form in this one. American Tim Gill had 26 points last time out against Manchester, with Scotty Hendricks adding 13 more. Captain Dan Carter’s return from injury will also be another boost for the Berkshire side.
Reading's Scotty Hendricks (black kit) has enjoyed a promising start to his Reading career - Shaun Colley
For Bradford, it’s been a solid start to their campaign. An 80-77 win over a strong looking Loughborough side was followed up by a narrow loss to D1 new boys Kent. Last time out the Dragons regained their winning ways against Leicester but this weekend’s tie with the Rockets will be a significantly sterner test. With a number of players already looking in good touch, Rihards Sulcs, Ricky Fetske, Eisley Swaine, Rafi Saipe and Marcus Gooding have all found ways to contribute this season already.
Manchester Magic (3-1) are involved in an early double header weekend as they head North on Saturday to take on Team Newcastle (1-6) followed by a home encounter at the Amaechi on Sunday against last season’s D1 regular season winners Team Northumbria (2-1). After their win against Reading last week, that result is sure to provide a lift to Coach Middleton’s side as they face a tricky pair of games. Still, with both their opponents failing to fire in the early season, Northumbria lost recently to Hemel 89-66 whilst Team Newcastle continue to struggle as a promoted side to D1, the Magic will be hoping to grab all 4 points on offer.
The Magic aren’t the only team doubling up this week as Team Northumbria have a date in Lancashire with the Spinners (0-6) before their trip across to Manchester on the Sunday. It’s been a torrid start to the season for the Spinners who have struggled to look competitive in most of their games so far. No result will have hurt more than a 106-38 rout by Loughborough a few weeks ago and this match up with a strong Northumbria side might not offer much for them either.
Another side down near the foot of the table are Leicester Warriors (1-5). A recent 104-70 defeat to Bradford also saw Martyn Gayle go down with a serious Achilles injury, potentially ending his season and dealing a blow to his team. The Warriors quest to put some much needed points on the board continues on Saturday against Kent Crusaders (3-2). With Coach Gardner’s side already looking competitive in D1 after wins over Derby and Bradford, they’ll be glad to be back amongst the NBL’s elite after a season in D2.
Rounding out the weekend’s action, there is a battle at the top of the table to look forward to as Loughborough Students Riders (4-1) host the similarly ranked Team Solent Kestrels (4-1). Both the Riders and Kestrels are currently on 4 game winning streaks after dropping their season openers so it’ll be interesting to see which team comes out on top there. Finally, after claiming the 8th and final playoff spot last season, Hemel (4-1) are already looking to push on to greater things this term and will look to keep their hot start going against Zaire Taylor’s Worthing Thunder (2-2). The signing of former Solent Kestrel Jorge Ebanks will hopefully provide a boost for the Thunder who are 0-2 on their travels this season as they face a trip to one of D1M’s toughest venues in Hemel. Regardless of the personnel at their disposal, Worthing captain Brendan Okoronkwo is more than aware of the significant threat posed by this weekend’s opposition, “Hemel have been off to a great start. From watching tape, their physicality, size and speed of play have startled a lot of teams, typical characteristics of a team coached by Robert Youngblood, guess that comes from his playing days,” he said. “This weekend’s game will be a good benchmark for us, we want to finish up with teams like Hemel, so we have to give a good account for ourselves, come out and compete.”
After the joys of last season and capturing the D1W regular season title, it has been a rough start to the year for Team Solent Kestrels (1-4). Languishing near the foot of the table, their form so far will no doubt have cost Solent significant ground in their quest for a repeat title, if that is still a realistic aspiration now Ekemini Essien and Kalina Axentieva have both left the club. This weekend the Kestrels face newly promoted Oxford Brookes (4-0) who will no doubt have surprised many fans with their early season form. Given the opportunity pre-season to guess which team would be 4-0 and which would be 1-4 by the time this fixture came up, I doubt few people would have had Solent and Oxford the correct way round.
Elsewhere, Southwark Pride (3-2) will try and capitalise on their solid start to the season as they entertain Reading Rockets (2-2). On Saturday afternoon, 5th placed Leicester Students Riders (3-2) take on table topping Bristol Academy Flyers (5-1). The Flyers are thriving behind the efforts of Spaniard Maialen Zibleti and don’t appear to have lost a step despite the departure of Amani Clark.
Bristol's Maialen Zibleti's great form this season has helped the Flyers top the D1W standings at 5-1 - B.East Photography
A couple of sides are struggling at the bottom of the table after poor starts to the season. BA London Lions II (0-4), previously Barking Abbey, have partnering up with the Lions but regardless of their name results haven’t gone as expected for Coach Burton. A trip to face Team Birmingham Elite (2-2) could provide their first points of the season but the Midlands team have been competitive since their promotion from D2. The other winless side in the division, Anglia Ruskin (0-5) are faced with the tough task of trying to hand Essex Blades (4-0) their 1st loss of the campaign.
Finally, newly promoted side University of Nottingham (2-3) will be looking to get back to .500 as they host a Lancashire Spinners (2-3) team looking to do exactly the same thing. The Spinners are nearly half way to their total number of wins from all of last season as they appear a team on the rise behind Julie Page and Milly Knowles.
D2M surprise package Nottingham Hoods (5-0) lead the way with a 4-point cushion at the top of the standings after a faultless start to the season. They hit the road this weekend to face the London Pioneers (1-4) who have struggled to get into gear and find themselves propping up the table after the early going.
Essex Leopards (2-1) have adjusted well to life in D2 and started their campaign with 2 straight wins before suffering their first loss of the season to Sussex Bears last time out. Leopards coach Tom Baker has done well to stabilise his roster after the Home Office ruled last season’s standout AJ Roberts ineligible for D2 competition. It was a disappointing turn of events for the NBL as well as the clearly talented American who would no doubt have had a very productive season had he been allowed to remain in Essex. Baker and his team will look to put that disappointment and their recent loss behind them as they travel to face a tough Thames Valley (3-2) side looking to go one better than their 3rd place finish a year ago. Doing so would secure promotion to D1 and although the Cavs currently sit in 2nd place, they’ll need to replicate last season’s strong form if they’re to stay the course in a competitive division.
Liverpool (3-2) scrapped to retain their D2M status for most of last season but when all was said and done they managed to keep themselves up. This season is off to a significantly better start and the Merseyside team have already secured wins over Thames Valley, London Pioneers and Derbyshire Arrows. This weekend they come up against newly promoted Middlesex LTBC (2-3) who look comfortable at this level and will pose a challenge for most teams on their day.
Another newly promoted team, Sussex Bears (3-2) saw their 3 game winning streak snapped last week after a loss to London Westside but they’ll try to get back on track Saturday as Derbyshire Arrows (1-2) take the long trip down to the South coast. The Arrows will then head home via Westminster on Sunday to face the 2-3 Warriors at Capital City Academy. Like the Arrows, the Warriors are also in double header action as they head to Ipswich (3-2) to start their weekend. Ipswich have started the season well despite a number of changes to their roster from last term, including the appointment of new Head Coach John Ellis and the departure of Leigh Greenan, who joined D1 side Hemel.
The other game on the D2M slate this weekend sees Team Birmingham Elite (1-3) trying to bounce back after losses to Westminster and Middlesex. Their opponents at The Factory on Saturday are London Westside (1-3) who will try and rally behind the form of Phil Lartey, who has been amongst points for each of the side’s last 3 games.
In D2W North, table topping Ipswich (2-0) will put their unbeaten record on the line Saturday as they host Mansfield Giants (1-1). In the South there is a top of the table clash that is sure to draw a lot of interest. Leaders Sevenoaks Suns II (2-0) are the team to beat and their season continues this weekend with a home game against 2nd placed University of Exeter (2-1).
In D3M North, a youthful Myserscough College (3-1) team have started the season well but they’ll be tested this weekend by a University of Chester (3-2) side that finished as runners up in that division a season ago. East London All Stars (3-1) were relegated from D2M last season under their former name of NASSA Neptunes, but their mission to return to the NBL’s 2nd tier at the first time of asking is off to a good start as they currently top the D3M South table. Oxford Brooks University (3-1) could take that spot off the All-Star by the end of the weekend though as East London don’t have a league game and Oxford host last season’s D4 playoff champions, the newly promoted Northants Tauras (2-2).
In D4M, there is plenty at stake in the Midlands this weekend as table topping Derby Trailblazers II (5-0) take the short trip to Charnwood College Riders (1-4) as they try and stay in pole position. Hot on their heels, D4 new boys Team Derby (5-1) host Nottingham Trent University Hoods (1-3). That race could provide plenty of entertainment as the season goes on. Looking further North, Eddie Davis, Nat Akins and Vance Silcott have got Calderdale Explorers (5-0) on a roll and they should be able to keep that momentum going in Manchester this weekend vs the Magic II (0-5).
It might be doom and gloom for the winless D1 Women’s team, but the Men’s side in Barking are flying high in D4M South East. At 5-0, Barking Abbey are the team to beat and Norfolk Titans (1-4) are the next side up to try and topple the league leaders. Finally, the pick of the games in D4M South West sees Bristol Academy Flyers II (3-1) host Oxford City Hoops (3-3) as both teams strive to catch Huish Taunton Tigers at the top of the table.
There are 6 National Shield fixtures this weekend that are sure to provide plenty of talking points. All 6 games take place on Sunday and the tie to watch will no doubt be East London All Stars’ trip to play Oxford Brookes. With both teams doing well in D3 South at 3-1, it will remain to be seen if East London’s decision to take Saturday off to rest up will pay off, or if Oxford can win their league game Saturday and come into this one with momentum firmly behind them.