Rollers set to reclaim Rio medal hopes for Australian basketball

All is not lost in Rio, when it comes to winning a medal for Aussie hoops. The Australian national men's wheelchair basketball team --otherwise known as the Aussie Rollers-- will be participating in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games this week.

Will they be the team to keep Australia's hopes alive, and bring a medal home for all basketball fans Down Under?

Australia held its collective breath through the 2016 Summer Olympics, and was disappointed when the event ended without a medal for Australian basketball. The Boomers fell short of a bronze medal against Spain, who won the game in a manner best deemed controversial. Meanwhile, the Opals were eliminated by Serbia in the quarter-finals; poor execution saw them falter against an experienced opponent, resulting in defeat.

The Rollers might actually be Australian basketball's best hope for a medal this year. They have had a proud history of success in the Paralympic Games, having secured medals in the past three Games. The team made silver in 2004, gold in 2008, and placed silver once more during the 2012 London Games.

Four-time Paralympian Brad Ness leads the Rollers this year, and his desire to win gold has never been more apparent. The heartbreak of losing in the London 2012 Games has stirred a palpable hunger that never quite faded.

“Every time I hear the word ‘London’, for whatever reason, it takes me back to that final and it burns," Ness shared, in an Australian Paralympic committee release last month. “I hate the feeling it stirs inside of me, but it has given me motivation to come back and make amends for what happened."

The desire to win at all costs is obvious.

"The guys that were there in London all know how that left us feeling, and now all of us have that burning desire to not let that feeling happen again. The guys are driven by the legacy and culture of the team."

Like Ness says, the team is united in their pursuit for success, and continued excellence.

"It's the want to continue to maintain the Rollers program at the highest level."

The Captain's journey

How has the road been like for Rollers captain Brad Ness, a veteran of four Paralympic Games, and days away from his fifth appearance?

Image courtesy of Leigh Gooding

"Every one one of [the past Games] have been very special and unique in their own right," Ness reminisces. "We have had both success and failure, so to speak. But really, all in all [it is] just an unbelievable experience to to be able to go out and represent the Rollers and Australia to the best of my ability. Not everyone gets that opportunity, and it is one I respect 100%."

"Every country is different, and brings a different atmosphere to each games making it special. I am expecting Rio to do the same: lots of flair and action. I can't wait."

One would be inclined to think that the miles have taken their toll on the 41 year old Ness, and that his physical shape might not be what it once was. He confirms that reality is otherwise; not only for himself, but for the entire team.

"We have been training hard, and the Rollers have the best strength and conditioning coach in Adam Wolski --not to mention Jess and Ryan our physios-- who keep us on the track and in the gym. Our off-court staff have been sensational in getting not only me, but all the boys up to peak levels; [we are definitely] ready to rumble in a few days' time."

In saying that, Ness confirms that his reserve role on the Rollers has definitely made a difference, when it comes to giving his all on the court.

"My role has changed over the years; now I come off the bench as an impact player, so the body is still going strong."

Experience counts

The Rollers have assembled a formidable squad this year, one that contains a mix of fresh talents and seasoned veterans.

"This is as close of a group of men I have ever been around," Rollers head coach, Ben Ettridge agrees. "We have a great blend of experience and youth. 1 through 18, every guy on this team has been superb. We are extremely proud of these guys."

Experienced Rollers like Tristan Knowles and Shaun Norris --both of whom are entering their fourth Summer Paralympics appearance-- form a battle-hardened core. Let's not forget other stalwarts like Brett Stibners, Tige Simmons, Jannik Blair and Bill Latham, all of whom have been to the Games in recent years.

There's plenty of experience on the big stage when we talk about this team, even for the men entering their first Games this year. As Ness confirms, most of the Rollers in this squad have won a World Championship, and have been in the program for a number of years now. There's no question about their commitment to the team.

"They are all very level-headed and bring a calmness to the squad, because they have learnt to do their job and focus on the next game." The skipper says. "We have a very special group of guys who are a very tight unit, which makes it easy for us veterans."

This year's Rollers are certainly projected to go far, if the captain's comments on their physical conditioning and talent are anything to go by.

"The squad this year is the fittest and strongest we have ever been," Ness confirms. "On top of that, the depth of talent is far deeper this time round with each player capable of starting."

The Rollers' evolution: physicality over all else

Back in July, Ness had talked about the team's next evolution in playing style.

"Over the years we've been known to be physically dominant," the captain said, according to ABC News. "We've taken that to the next level by including six bigs and leaving out a number of mid-range players."

Why isn't shooting as important in wheelchair basketball?

Why did the Rollers leave shooters out? This question might be the first thought that comes up, for fans new to the sport of wheelchair basketball.

It also spurs a series of related thoughts.

Many basketball fans are familiar with the modern NBA's pace-and-space offence, and how having more shooters affords more space on the inside. How this differ when it comes to wheelchair basketball, especially when it comes to the Rollers?

Does court spacing matter less in wheelchair basketball? Is passing the ball to get a closer shot, prioritised over taking a farther mid-range shot in general? What kind of shots does the team place the most value on?

According to coach Ettridge, wheelchair basketball began moving towards a pace-and-space offence between 2008-2010, when players began to work on their three-point shot.

"Our goal at the 2010 World Championships, was to have at least 3 legitimate 3-point shooting threats on the floor at any one time, and it was a strategy that paid dividends for us," Ettridge recounted. "When the line moved back, it kind of reduced its effectiveness, and in 2012 we saw the game go back the interior dominance."

The Rollers however, have not given up on shooting, but tweaked their roster to compensate accordingly. Success speaks for itself: the team has shot the three-pointer at 42% over their last three major tournaments.

Coach Ettridge went on to discuss the Rollers' offensive style, the emphasis on speed and paint presence, and how it all meshes together.

Image courtesy Leigh Gooding

"The work we do seven days a week in the gym is about being able to get down the floor fast, and then put the ball in the hole."

Having said that, execution isn't as easy as it sounds, as Ettridge explains. A lot of the action comes from having a plan and reading the court, more than set plays. The Rollers however, are a cohesive unit. They know to get their teammates to their best spots, and give them the scoring opportunities they need.

"Shooting the ball isn't an equal opportunity sport for us," Ettridge confirmed. "When we get a guy in that spot, and that could be 5 seconds into the shot clock or with 5 secs left, we all want him to shoot it."

He also made sure to point out Tristan Knowles' incredible 52% accuracy from behind the arc. To put this into context, Stephen Curry made 45.4% of his shots from downtown over the course of the 2015-16 regular season.

Needless to say, Knowles likely gets a huge portion of the long-range scoring opportunities, when he's in place.

How low point players fit in

Wheelchair basketball classifies athletes using a point system from 1.0 to 4.5; a higher point indicates a better ability to perform basketball skills. Tests are conducted on an athlete's physical limitations when making movements like shooting, passing, rebounding, pushing and dribbling. A team can not exceed 14 points in total, for its five players on the court.

Low point athletes are less versatile in a basketball sense, but the Rollers have found a way to make them deadly offensive weapons regardless.

"These guys are like old school jump shooters, the guys who come into a pick up game and just snipe you from the baseline or the 45's," Ettridge says. "They are all shooting high 50's in the mid-range."

"It doesn't quite fit the pace-and-space offence model," He admits. "However, it's effective for us as teams pack the paint to try and negate the inside force."

What lies ahead in Rio?

Wheelchair basketball in the Paralympic Games start on 8 September. The Rollers begin their journey in Group A, and are matched up against Canada, Spain, Turkey, Japan and the Netherlands.

The group games already feature two potential storylines in the making. Coach Ettridge expects nothing less than a battle with Group A opponent Turkey, and we can expect the Rollers to have a little extra motivation when facing Canada, whom the Rollers lost to in that fateful 2012 gold medal game.

"We expect Spain to give it a good shake, they were very good in 2014," Ettridge comments. "Germany will be up and about after a poor World Cup. You can never underestimate the home team. Brazil will [also] be one to watch."

Ness has unwavering confidence in the team's ability to deliver a medal, should everything go to plan.

"If we all do our job to the best of our abilities, stick to the process and game plans from the coaching staff, do everything right recovery-wise and play Rollers Basketball? The result should take care of itself." He understands however, that anything can happen in the Games, and the road is long. "It's about setting yourself up by getting through the pool games, making the quarter- and semi-finals so that you give yourself every opportunity to medal."

Ettridge concurs.

"We are in control of our own destiny and we are ready. The opportunity is now here."


ROLLERS 2016 PARALYMPICS SQUAD

  • Brad Ness – Fremantle, WA

  • Tristan Knowles – Spotswood, VIC

  • Shaun Norris – Alexander Heights, WA

  • Tige Simmons – Fairfield, QLD

  • Brett Stibners – Oak Flats, NSW

  • Jannik Blair – Horsham, VIC

  • Bill Latham – Coffs Harbour, NSW

  • Josh Allison – Croydon, VIC

  • Adam Deans – Diannella, WA

  • Matthew McShane – Carrara, QLD

  • Tom O’Neill-Thorne – Nightcliff, NT

  • Shawn Russell – Farmborough Heights, NSW