United back to peak form, will they carry it into the NBL21 finals?

FOR the better part of their NBL21 campaign, Melbourne United has been widely regarded as the team to beat by the other eight sides. But since the turn of mid-season that moniker is being pulled in two different directions with the Victorian side and last year’s champions Perth Wildcats sharing the top of the ladder.

But with the last leg of games still to be played, United have all but locked up another postseason appearance, sitting more than five wins ahead of the Illawarra Hawks who currently sit in fourth position on the rankings. Nevertheless, these upcoming matches for Dean Vickerman’s squad will remain tremendously important, as there is little more valuable to a side than going into the finals with good form on their side.

Going all the way back to mid-January, Melbourne’s 24-point thrashing of the Adelaide 36ers was the perfect precursor for how United’s season was going to go, setting up what would be a lengthy unbeaten run to kick off the fixture. The 2020 semi-finalists then earned wins over the Cairns Taipans, South East Melbourne Phoenix, Brisbane Bullets, Illawarra Hawks and Perth Wildcats, capping off a six-game streak from the opening round – the best start to the season from any side across the competition.

Melbourne’s first blemish on their win-loss record came surprisingly on opening night of the inaugural NBL Cup against the Wildcats, who they had defeated just a couple of weeks prior. This loss reminded United not to rest on their laurels given their exemplary start and also how potent the two-time defending premiers still were. United quickly returned to their expected form with four straight victories following their first loss.

If Melbourne had continued their stellar results leading up to today, no one would even question any other team being on their level. But after attaining a ridiculous 10 wins for one loss start to the season, Melbourne conceded their second loss of the campaign to the Bullets to end Round 8. Afterwards, they would then suffer their third loss to the Phoenix, then a fourth to the Hawks, and a fifth to the Sydney Kings. Melbourne’s four-game losing streak quickly produced more doubters as the Wildcats started to close the gap on the ladder leaders.

United’s four losses during the NBL Cup saw them lock up fourth position in the tournament standings below Perth, South East Melbourne and Brisbane – a serious dark patch in what is looking to be a very successful NBL21 for Chris Goulding and his teammates.

Light has certainly been found at the end of United’s mid-season tunnel, having strung together a winning streak of seven games leading up to today since Round 10. Melbourne also sits half a game above Perth with the final lot of games to play, and with home-court advantage on the line come finals, the two sides will be putting their best foot forward to secure that minor premiership.

United has shown this season that there are three main weapons to their team structure. First up is Goulding’s ability to score anywhere on the floor efficiently and quickly which has served the team captain well for numerous years now. Goulding may not be the roster’s top scorer currently, but the 32-year-old has had some awesome scoring nights this season and his 16.2 points per game is evidence this.

A consistent and reliable participant on the floor as well as the second weapon of Melbourne’s three-pronged attack, Mitch McCarron has played all 22 of the team’s games this season (one of three Melbourne players not to miss a game). With this, McCarron has also produced solid numbers averaging 11.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists and almost one and a half steals per outing.

Another player to have appeared in all 22 of United’s contests is Jock Landale and he has well and truly taken the league by storm. Averaging a team-high 16.5 points, 8.2 rebounds on 52 per cent shot success from the field, Landale is arguably Coach Vickerman’s biggest and most potent weapon. The big man is also dishing at almost two and a half assists per game and has accumulated eight double-doubles since the beginning of the season.

After losing Jack White (9.1 points and 6.0 rebounds) to a season-ending Achilles injury, the title contenders suffered a big blow to their squad rotation. However, with Scotty Hopson (12 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists) possibly returning and Sam McDaniel (4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds) back on the hardwood, Melbourne can use their depth to their fullest extent in running their opponents off the court. Additional weapons like import Yudai Baba (8.1 points and 2.1 rebounds) and big-man Jo Lual-Acuil (7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds) will also need to be clicking from here on in, as the end of the campaign approaches and especially once the postseason arrives.

Melbourne will have the chance to further consolidate their top-four dominance when they face the Hawks on Sunday, looking for their ninth home win in 11 matches. United then host the struggling 36ers in Round 15, who are running out of time to make their way into the top four and will need to defeat the Victorian side to start that uphill climb.

The NBL has also released the remaining fixtures for all nine teams. For information regarding the 14 games that Melbourne United are yet to play – CLICK HERE.

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