Championship Preview: Riders at Eagles

Round six of the British Basketball League Championship sees the Riders travel north to Newcastle for the second time this season.

After splitting last weekend’s back-to-back games – the latter of which a loss to the Manchester Giants – Rob Paternostro’s squad will want to get back to winning ways and improve on their 4-2 record.

Fixture Information

Leicester Riders @ Seriös Group Newcastle Eagles

Vertu Motors Arena, Newcastle

Friday, October 20, 7:30pm

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A Weekend of Attrition

The Riders currently sit second in the BBL Championship table with eight points after splitting a weekend double-header.

Coach Paternostro did a good job of managing his players’ workload in Friday’s 91-74 win over the Surrey Scorchers, but an excellent second half by the Giants saw them best the Riders with a score of 94-80.

Fatigue may well have been a factor down the stretch in Manchester, as Leicester scored a season-low 80 points, but strong outings from Xavier Pinson, Caleb Asberry and TJ Lall were further proof that this young squad is continuing to get better.

Lall, who is proving to be a key member of the Riders’ second unit, came of the bench to drop 11 points, snag nine rebounds and draw five fouls.

The 6’7” guard’s versatility has been on full display early as he averages 8.3 points per game, 38.5% from deep range and leads the team in rebounds per game with 5.3.

The Eagles are proficient on the offensive glass, so Lall’s hustle to grab missed shots will be crucial.

As well as matching Newcastle on the boards, the Riders will need to return to their usual high standard of free throw shooting.

The Riders and the Eagles are the two best teams in the BBL at getting to the foul line, averaging 40.9 and 42.8 free throws per game respectively.

The team that can convert those chances at the foul line most efficiently could end up taking home the victory.

Getting Back to Winning Ways

Since an 81-74 victory in Bristol on September 22, the Eagles haven’t won a game, falling into a run of four straight losses.

One of those defeats came at the hands of the Riders, who bested the hometown team 92-85 in a pulsating game.

Monday’s 109-104 overtime loss to the unbeaten London Lions spells a change, though, so the Riders should expect a similarly competitive contest.

Former Giants forward Tajh Green flashed the most against the Lions, hitting all of his three shots from downtown on his way to an impactful 23-point haul.

The 6’8” big man, who has averaged a near double-double over his BBL tenure, is the Eagles’ front-court focal point with the strength to bang inside and the speed to run the floor on fast breaks.

Green, who dropped 17 points last time the two teams met, will need to repeat those numbers for an Eagles team that has struggled on offense, averaging just under 80 PPG.

That, added to a 40.7 FG%, means that Newcastle need to focus heavily on scoring efficiency if they are to best a Riders team that excels in this area.

A final wrinkle to this contest comes as the Eagles’ staff will have to manage their players’ minutes.

Newcastle travel to Bristol to face a 4-3 Flyers team on Saturday night. Back-to-back games could see star players like Jordan Johnson taking to the floor less often than usual.

Key Matchup

Both the Riders and the Eagles get to the foul line better than any other team in the BBL. However, both squads are also very good at foul-free basketball.

The key matchup for this game could be between two guards who are aggressive when hitting the lane and often force defenders into personal fouls: Larry Austin Jr. and Jaren Holmes.

Illinois native Austin Jr is a wily veteran guard, currently in his third season in the BBL, the first two spent with the Cheshire Phoenix.

Standing at 6’2”. Austin Jr. is quick and strong, known for his perimeter defence and eye for a rebound. 

He is also excellent at finding his way to the foul line. The former Central Michigan player is currently taking 5.2 free throws per game, just behind Johnson who is at 7.3, second in the British Basketball League.

Austin Jr is a good ‘alternative threat’ in the Eagles’ backcourt, a role being played perfectly by the Riders’ Jaren Holmes.

Holmes, who is averaging 13.5 points, is slightly taller than his opposite number at 6’4” and can use his size to also compete with forwards on the wing.

The Iowa State star uses his speed and will to get to the rim to great effect, and this ‘attack first’ mentality sees him shooting 4.5 free throws.

Holmes gets to the line less frequently than Austin Jr, but his 85% conversion rate, compared to his opponent’s 65%, could give the Riders’ guard the edge.

Played for both- Corey Johnson

Former Riders sharpshooter Corey Johnson once donned Eagles colours, after playing an integral part in a Riders championship win.

The Canadian wing spent two seasons in the East Midlands, putting up 10.9 points per game on 38% three-point shooting in the 2020/21 season. 

Johnson helped the Riders to the League title with a 24-6 record, playing in all 30 games that season. 

Johnson signed with Newcastle the next season, adding 14 points per game to the reigning Playoff champions. 

Johnson now suits up for the Derby Trailblazers in the NBL Division One, having played for the Manchester Giants last season. 

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