Three big questions facing the Perth Wildcats' struggles this season
They steadied the ship with a pair of wins in round six, but the Wildcats are still on the ropes. Where do they need to keep improving to get their finals push back on track?
Credit: Clusterpix Sports Photography
From a 35-year finals streak and ten championships, to back-to-back seasons of missing the NBL semi-finals, the past two years have been a punch in the face for the Perth Wildcats and their fans. A new season and a retooled roster brought hope of a rapid recovery this season, and added to their earned “title or bust” mindset; instead, a horrific 2-5 start left them on the ropes once again and had their finals hopes hanging by a thread, barely a month into the campaign.
While the players had been underwhelming in their efforts, the Red Army directed the bulk of their fury to those off the court. After all, their journey from heroes to zeroes started at the same time as a change in ownership, a new general manager, and a new coach.
That meant that, as their team hit a new low, those figureheads were the ones to come under fire. A loss at home to a Bullets team missing starters Aron Baynes and Shannon Scott was the team’s fourth straight defeat, and it proved to be the final straw for many. The team received jeers from the crowd as the game ended, and coach John Rillie himself was reportedly booed at a postgame members function; Rachel Cotton, wife of star Wildcat Bryce, responded to criticism of her husband on social media with a shot at the team’s coaching, saying that “there’s no system within the team”; and amidst mounting pressure, owner Craig Hutchison was forced to publicly defend himself and his charges.
Despite two-plus years of on-court struggles, the message was one of stability and calm. “We’ve got some good music playing from time to time, but the band hasn’t been in perfect harmony with each other, and they are restless to correct that,” Hutchison told 10 News Perth. “We ask for a little bit more patience if you’re prepared to give it to us, but we equally accept what you have to say along the way.”
It was a tone matched by Rillie immediately after that disastrous loss to the Bullets, where his team started on the wrong side of an 18-3 run and couldn’t recover. “This is a group I believe in – when you’re usually 2-5 you probably start to really waver from your mindset of a group,” Rillie said. “Yeah, so we’re losing games. Yep, we are. But, it can change in a heartbeat – that’s all I’ll say.”
That proved to be prescient, at least in the short term, as they righted the ship somewhat with a win over the in-form Adelaide 36ers. That was still far from a perfect performance, though – they again stumbled out of the gates in a must-win contest, shooting 6-20 from the field to start the game, and while they were excellent in building a 20-point lead in the third term, that was followed by a 26-2 36ers run that set up a nervy finish. Two nights later, it was another rollercoaster ride as they beat Melbourne United in overtime to claim their first road win of the season, showing plenty of grit and determination but struggling to put away a team that lost Luke Travers, Ian Clark and Ariel Hukporti through injury.
Still, the Wildcats desperately need wins, and they were able to bank two crucial ones to essentially keep their season alive. That should keep the wolves at bay for the time being, but with a rabid fanbase that values sustained success, it won’t be enough to hold them off for long. Even with the improvements shown in the weekend’s action, questions still remain.
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