Title contenders face off in Round 14 opener

TWO genuine NBL 2023/24 title contenders will go head-to-head tonight from 7:30pm as the third placed Sydney Kings host ladder leaders, Melbourne United. The reigning champions sit with a delicate 10-8 record heading into Round 14, just ahead of both Tasmania JackJumpers and South East Melbourne Phoenix, while United is three games clear on top despite a shock loss last round.

Unlike Melbourne who suffered a disappointing 17 point loss to Cairns, the Kings were able to account for the Taipans by 19 points, bouncing back from a heartbreaking Round 12 where they lost to New Zealand Breakers (eight points) and Illawarra Hawks (four). United had been in a good run of form prior to that, accounting for Adelaide 36ers by 11 points and Perth Wildcats by six to maintain their top spot.

On both occasions these teams have met in the 2023/24 season, Melbourne United has had the better of Sydney Kings, winning by 18 points on September 20, then 12 points on November 19. However both were at United’s homecourt, and now the tables have turned with the match taking place at Qudos Bank Arena.

Experienced long-range shooter Chris Goulding is enjoying a superb return to his best this season, averaging 18.4 points per game and shooting at a deadly 42.3 per cent from beyond the arc. He has also chipped in with a couple of assists and rebounds, but has been boosted by the likes of Matthew Dellavedova (5.4 assists) and Shea Ili (4.3) who have taken hold of the facilitating on offence, allowing Goulding to have more open looks.

Recruit Luke Travers has been a welcome inclusion, with the 200cm 22-year-old putting up 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season. He has shared that load with Jo Lual-Acuil who is hard to stop at 11cm and 104kg, throwing his weight around to pick up 7.7 rebounds per game to go with 15.8 points per match.

Sydney’s recruits have proven just as efficient with Jaylen Adams returning for numbers of 18.1 points, 5.2 assists and 3.7 rebounds per match, while pickpocketing opponents at least once per game. Similarly, DJ Hogg‘s influence (14.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists) coming from the Taipans, along with recruit Denzel Valentine who is coming off his best performance of the season with 29 points and eight rebounds in just 23 minutes off the bench against Cairns, prove more than a handful for opposition teams.

Melbourne’s best basketball is when United can dictate the court and score well, while ensuring the opposition cannot get off easy looks. Hogg is one of the best blockers in the competition and will be key to try and quell the likes of Travers and Lual-Acuil at the basket, while Jonah Bolden has been a great addition to come off the boards in the front and back courts.

As always, eyes will be on Next Star duo Ariel Hukporti and Alex Toohey in the match as they look to further push their NBA Draft cases this season. Hukporti is currently averaging 8.2 points and 7.7 rebounds, providing a commanding presence close to the basket, particularly on the defensive end. Toohey has put a solid 9.3 points and 4.2 rebounds starting in all bar one of his games this season for the Kings.

At home the Kings will be hard to beat, but United is likely to have extra motivation to bounce back after the loss to Cairns, which might tip the result in their favour.

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