Physicality is key: Melbourne United is ready to repeat its championship run

Melbourne United, since the days of the Melbourne Tigers, is one of the most decorated franchises in the NBL’s history. Five championships in nine Grand Final appearances speak for themselves. Some of the best players to play in Australia’s national league have worn Melbourne’s colours, most notably the legendary Andrew Gaze. However, one achievement has eluded the organisation since its foundation in 1984; winning the championship title back-to-back. With the season just over two months away, United are preparing for the tough, potentially history-making season that lies ahead of them.

With the lessons and memories of the demanding Grand Final series against Adelaide still in their minds, the team is excited to commence the new journey, with the goal of being the last team left standing. For United head coach, Dean Vickerman, the Adelaide series reinforced the importance of winning home court advantage. In all five games, neither team was able to steal a win away from their home court, a pattern that did not go unnoticed by Vickerman. “That’s why we try and win games in the regular season, to get that Game Five at home.”

One of the many reasons the Grand Final series between Melbourne and Adelaide was so attention-grabbing was due to factors beneath the surface. The contest stood out due to the bruising physical play and the seething emotional animosity, which often became unshackled. This tension was notably exemplified during a bench clearing altercation during halftime of Game Three, when Nathan Sobey clashed with Casey Prather following an equalising Prather buzzer beater.

According to Vickerman, the preparations heading into the new season will apply the lessons learnt from the finals series. “The physicality that it took to beat Adelaide, we had to throw absolutely everything at them.” In their bid to win it all, United adopted some unorthodox preparation methods. “We wrestled, we did boxing, we did all kinds of things to go and get ready for that series. We’ll take a lot of those things that we did last year [and apply them] in preparation for our physicality going into this season as well.”

For veteran Melbourne forward David Barlow, last season’s experiences only proved that the group was capable of handling bumps in the road. “Going through such a gruelling series and learning how to adjust on the fly and then finish off with a victory, I think those things really help a team mature. Learning how to win in those situations is really important. Hopefully, that will help us for the upcoming season.”

As United quietly and methodically go about the business of preparation, one team has not been shy about announcing to Australia their intent for the upcoming season. The Sydney Kings created headlines around Australia after they secured the signature of retired NBA centre, Andrew Bogut. With the players they retained from last year, in combination with their new additions, Sydney are poised to upset United’s aspirations of a second consecutive championship. The Kings have made it abundantly clear that it is championship or bust this season. Following his first training session with the team, Bogut made it clear that the only measure of success for the group is winning a championship. The fact that the Kings are aiming as high as possible is no surprise to Vickerman. “They’re talking about championship or bust, it’s totally who they are. They spent the money, they went and got every piece that they could to try and win it, and that’s where they’ve positioned themselves.”

Although confident in his team’s ability to return to the Grand Final, Barlow is cognizant of the danger the King’s pose with Bogut on the court. “I think with the signing of Bogut, it gives [Sydney] that unknown, someone that has been so good and so successful. [Bogut] probably makes them the kind of team that every other team feels is the one to beat.”

With the Kings locked and loaded, Melbourne in contrast, continue to have big questions lingering over their personnel. Although finals MVP Chris Goulding confirmed he would continue to wear Melbourne colours back in April, both Josh Boone and Casper Ware, two American import players who were pivotal players in United’s championship run, are yet to re-sign. “We are a bit closer on Casper at the moment. Still in conversation with Josh [Boone],” said Vickerman.

With the loss of Casey Prather to Russian team Khimki, their signatures --or the signatures of other quality imports-- are especially critical. Prather leaves behind a difficult hole to fill. Prather’s versatility gave United incredible flexibility at both ends of the court. Finding a replacement has not been an easy task. “We’ve searched high and low for a guy who can play anywhere from the four spot down to the two spot, and even a bit of the one, a guy that can do a bit of everything,” said Vickerman.

Whilst some uncertainly still hovers around who will be on United’s final roster, their depth appears to be a strength Vickerman hopes to utilise. Bench players Peter Hooley and Craig Moller, both had impressive showings in their pre-seasons playing in SEABL. Hooley in particular, won team MVP honours with the Ballarat Miners. With a roster that looks to be able to play deep, Vickerman is hoping to exploit that to Melbourne’s advantage. “I think the schedule [this year] is really conducive to having deep rosters… I really think that in some of these back-to-back games your bench is going to be tested, and [they] have to be ready. A number of those guys like Moller and Hooley gained some unbelievably valuable experience last year, and that’s really going to be tested this year.”

With the NBL being a small league with high player turnover, it is a challenge for any team to remain on top. With Sydney, as well as teams like Perth, Brisbane and New Zealand, building imposing rosters, Melbourne’s path to another championship is a difficult one. However, having been tested and pushed to the limit last year, United are confident in their ability to repeat last season’s success. With club history at stake, it’s going to require everyone on the list stepping up. “It’s always just next man up,” said Vickerman. “We had a lot of guys step up throughout [last] year, and we know that’s going to be required again this year.”