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NBL Cup opening day preview: a new challenge

The opener of the inaugural NBL Cup will see the Cairns Taipans face the Illawarra Hawks, and it's a contest that exemplifies the two different mindsets being exhibited from the teams that have entered the league's Melbourne hub.

On one hand, there are a group of teams who are looking to use what the NBL's mid-season tournament offers - a heap of games on the 'road', in a short amount of time - to bond, and also get repetitions with the hopes of finding their identity. The Taipans fall into that category.

"We had a huge home stretch," the Taipans' star point guard, Scott Machado, told ESPN.

"So, just being able to get away for a little bit, and make sure the guys get to stay together a little bit more, and get to converse a little bit more, is gonna help us a lot as a team.

"We get to interact a little more, being in the same vicinity. It allows us to make sure that we speak to each other, we fix errors, and we've been doing a good job at that, and trying to translate it to being an everyday thing. It's gonna help a lot."

Then, there are those teams who already have a good idea of who and what they are; whether it's because they've got a lot of games under their belt or have just been together long enough to figure each other out. That's where the Hawks feel they have an upper hand, according to their captain, AJ Ogilvy.

"We already had a mini-hub situation, up in Cairns when we did the Cairns-Brisbane trip, so I think we're uniquely positioned to be successful in this situation," Ogilvy told ESPN. "We kind of know what it takes, so hopefully we can continue that streak and tie a few wins together."

All nine NBL teams have descended on Melbourne for the event, which begins on February 20 and will feature 18 double-headers across John Cain Arena and the State Basketball Centre; good for 36 total games over the four weeks of action.

All 36 games played for the NBL Cup will count towards the teams' overall season record, while a separate ladder for the tournament will also be in effect, with three points awarded for a win and an extra point awarded for each quarter won. The winner of the NBL Cup will earn $150,000 in prize money, while the second-place finisher will receive $100,000 and third place walks away with $50,000.

The Brian Goorjian-led Hawks (5-2) have been one of the hottest teams in the NBL, led by sharp-shooting import, Tyler Harvey, and they'll open the tournament with a game against a Taipans (2-6) team that's yet to find its feet.

The Taipans were faced with this sort of predicament to open last season, but managed to rebound in a big way and qualify for finals basketball. Machado, who enters the Cup as the NBL's assists leader with 9.9 dimes a game, is confident his team has the mental fortitude to emulate what they did last season.

"We need to continue to push forward and to continue to believe, and make sure the guys continue to believe as well," Machado said. "Make sure they stay on top of their game. We did turn it around last year and the same thing is possible. Just understanding that and knowing every night is a different night, [and] it's a brand-new game. We've gotta come and bring it, so we've gotta do that again."

The second matchup of the tournament's opening-night doubleheader will see the Perth Wildcats go up against Melbourne United; a contest between the NBL's reigning MVP and the consensus best team in the league.

Bryce Cotton, as expected, remains one of the NBL's most prolific scorers, and has led his Wildcats to a 2-3 record to start the season. One oddity, though, is that four of the defending champions' first five games have been against the same team - the South East Melbourne Phoenix - while the other was against an undefeated United, who they'll face to open the NBL Cup.

With every team set to face each other one time over the course of the tournament, Cotton is looking forward to finally seeing some new faces in front of him.

"Being able to play a different team, that'll be good," Cotton told ESPN, with a smile.

"One benefit, I guess, for playing the same two teams the first five games is that you've got an early feel of what playoff basketball is like when you're playing in a series. We definitely found a lot of kinks that we had, and hopefully we worked on that. Being able to play somebody new, after we play Melbourne again, that'll be pretty good for us, I think."

When United and the Wildcats faced off in Round 4, it was a close contest, but Dean Vickerman's team managed to walk away with the win, and will enter the tournament with a 6-0 record. United, technically the 'home' team throughout the NBL Cup, will likely be without Chris Goulding (calf) for the entirety of the tournament, while Shea Ili (ankle) remains sidelined; the team forced to lean on the likes of Jock Landale and Mitch McCarron to be the primary players on both ends of the floor.

Landale is among the most talented players in the NBL and has emerged as a potential MVP candidate, while McCarron is one of the league's best two-way guards, so United doesn't seem to have skipped a beat since losing key pieces to injury; they're one of those teams that have figured out who they are, and their record proves it.

The Wildcats have been led by their import duo of Cotton and John Mooney, but are still in the process of gelling as a group.

"We have a lot of new faces this year, and some young guys as well," Cotton said.

"Whether it's ideal or not, the season's here, so we're gonna have to make our adjustments, but that's what basketball is about. Considering how unprecedented this year is, all the teams are kind of learning and adjusting on the fly, so whoever does that first is gonna end up being the best team throughout this year."

At the end of the day, though, the sentiment held by a heap of players is one of relief: that, for the first time this season, they know exactly how things are going to operate for the next four weeks. The players know who their opponents will be, where they'll be living, and which stadium they'll be playing in.

Such is a new luxury of playing sports amid a pandemic, and the perspective that comes with it. "Honestly, man, every time I step out on the floor, it's just exciting for me to play basketball," Cotton said. "I love it so much. Considering what COVID has done for sports in general, I think we're all just so happy to just be able to be playing again.

"To have us all somewhere safe, and somewhere secure, where we know these are the games we're playing for the next month; it's definitely exciting."