BENDIGO has burst out of the blocks, but does the Spirit have its rivals’ measure in the WNBL title race? TRAVIS KING gazes into his crystal ball to find out what the rest of 2013/14 holds.
Season so far – 6th (6-9)
ANNUS horriblis sums up 2013 for the Adelaide Lightning.
The rot started in February, when Adelaide was bundled out in the first week of last season’s finals.
It spread when two-time league MVP Suzy Batkovic packed her bags and flew north to Townsville in April.
And then the floor fell through as the club reached its nadir in November.
A 4-4 start, including a loss to lowly West Coast, wasn’t good enough to save coach Peter Buckle from the sack.
His replacement, Richard Dickel, has found life even tougher in the hot seat.
A talented, if ageing, roster simply hasn’t played up to scratch.
Only Laura Hodges (16.4) and Jess Foley (12.9) are averaging double figure points from the regular roster.
At 6-9 and four games behind fourth spot, it’s probably too late for the Lightning to impact 2013/14.
BERNIE Harrower has only one concern this Christmas break - how to keep a lid on the hype.
The veteran coach couldn’t have scripted a better start to the Spirit’s title defence.
A club record 13-game winning streak, unbeaten home record and three-game buffer on top of the ladder has Bendigo in pole position to go back-to-back.
Everyone expected the Spirit to improve after adding Elyse Penaluna, Sara Blicavs and Tessa Lavey to their experienced core group.
And the trio have fitted in almost seamlessly after only a few early-season hiccups.
Penaluna and Blicavs have become integral to the squad, adding potency and easing the load on veterans Kristi Harrower (above right), Gabe Richards, Chelsea Aubry and Kelly Wilson.
The Spirit’s starting five, not forgetting Kelsey Griffin, is as good as any in the league.
However, it’s Bendigo’s bench, which is deeper and more versatile than any other club’s, that could prove to be the difference.
The Spirit has cover in every position on the floor and Bendigo’s added height means it now has the all-round game to combat any rival.
If the Spirit can keep their squad healthy, their eyes on the prize, and gain home court advantage for finals, then the WNBL trophy should be staying in central Victoria.
CANBERRA’S season just hasn’t got going.
The Caps wobbled after only one win from their opening four games and have been scrambling to stay in the hunt since.
Canberra is yet to win two-in-a-row.
An upset victory in Dandenong showed the group’s undoubted talent - headlined by Abby Bishop, Natalie Hurst and Jess Bibby, who are averaging above 15 points.
The Caps are the fourth-highest scoring side, but defence wins titles and coach Carrie Graf needs to find a way to plug the league’s third-leakiest defence.
THE bookies’ favourite pre-season, Dandenong looms as Bendigo’s biggest title threat.
The Rangers have the firepower in Jenna O’Hea, Alice Kunek and Leilani Mitchell to go all the way, but questions remain about their defensive frailties.
Dandenong concede on average 73 points per game, 11 more than Bendigo and Melbourne.
The Rangers are near unstoppable at their best, but will most likely have to confront their nemesis - the Spirit - to win the championship.
Bendigo has won the past eight Victorian derbies.
LOGAN had to fight just to get to the starting line this season and the battles have continued on the court.
Thunder fans might have hoped their struggle for survival would bond the team in a similar vein to the Spirit last season.
But the reality is Logan lacks the star players that Bendigo still boasted.
An average losing margin of 16 points could blow out in a tough run home, with five of their last nine games against current top four teams.
NEW coach Guy Molloy has impressed many by leading the Boomers into a strong position, despite the extended absence of Australian Opals guard Rachel Jarry.
Jarry’s knee injury has kept her out since October, but she will be back on court for the second half of the season - starting against the Spirit in Bendigo on Saturday, January 4.
Jarry’s return will take some pressure off Tess Madgen, although the former Spirit MVP has been in fine form averaging 15.5 points and five rebounds per game.
Import Chelsea Poppens and rising star Rebecca Allen have impressed in the frontcourt.
With Melbourne back in form, the WNBL has an all-Victorian top three heading into 2014.
Sydney Uni Flames
SYDNEY Uni remains in finals contention, but they will have to pull off something special to challenge for the top four.
A season that started brightly, with a 15-point win over Canberra, quickly soured as the Flames’ fire was doused by six-straight losses.
Veteran forward Rohanee Cox has again been forced to shoulder the load and keeps delivering, with help from the improved Katie-Rae Ebzery.
New import Lasondra Barrett will need a huge second half to lift Sydney into anywhere near finals, and the Flames will have to contend without Renae Camino who recently quit the club.
TWO words explain why every team in the league fears Townsville - Suzy Batkovic.
Since crossing from Adelaide this season, the two-time league MVP has almost single-handedly sparked the Fire’s charge up the ladder.
It’s no coincidence that Batkovic’s (relatively) slow start mirrored that of her team.
After getting one back on the Spirit in the grand final replay in round one, the Fire fell to 1-3.
But a 9-2 run since has reminded everyone of Townsville’s potential.
Batkovic has been instrumental, averaging 30 points and 14 rebounds from her past four games on her way to three-straight Player of the Week awards.
West Coast Waves
WHEN you’re coming off a 4-20 season the last thing you need is for your star player to go down injured.
That’s what happened to West Coast when Bendigo basketballer Deanna Smith suffered another knee injury after three games.
Since then the Waves have been pummelled with an average losing margin of 30 points.
West Coast will struggle to match last year’s four wins while collecting another wooden spoon.