The pain of last year’s semi-final loss will never leave Andrew Cooper, but the Cockburn Cougars coach knows his team isn’t far away in the NBL1 West Men’s competition and is confident two new imports could be just the change they need in 2023.
Cockburn finished fourth at the end of last regular season and while the finals didn’t quite go to plan with a tough showing in Geraldton and then a horror loss at the death to Warwick, Cooper knew his team wasn’t too far away.
The Cougars have been on an upward trajectory since he took over as coach to become a top four team. The combination of using that pain of the loss to the Senators combined with the arrival of two new imports is something Cooper can combine to see them rise further.
Cooper wanted minimal changes for 2023 so it’s just been a swap of imports with the arrival of Courtney Alexander II and Taj Benning to replace Carter Skaggs and Paschal Chukwu.
Another arrival is the signing of emerging guard Kieran Berry from East Perth but for the most part what Cooper likes is keeping things similar and embracing their additions, and the pain they suffered with how they lost that semi-final to the Senators.
“I’m feeling OK and our second import, Courtney, has just arrived so I feel a bit better now that he’s here,” Cooper said.
“Pre-season has been a bit disrupted because of some injuries, but the team is coming together and the core group has been together for a few years now so really it’s just a matter of implementing the two new guys and seeing where we go from there.
“We proved last year that with the players we had, we were one possession away from a prelim against Rockingham who we were confident of matching up with pretty well.
“We didn’t think in the off-season we had to change too much personnel wise and we felt we were on the right path, which was a good thing. We just needed to make a couple of adjustments with our imports to matching our playing style. So that’s the path we went down there.”
Cooper did see a couple of areas of improvement the Cougars could make coming into 2023. A big part in that was improving defensively and he has no doubt that Benning will be a significant part in setting the tone for Cockburn defensively.
Then with the addition of Alexander II to the front court, Cooper is excited to see what he can produce and wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the season, he is the league’s MVP and is attracting interest from NBL clubs.
“We know what we’re getting from Taj in terms of work ethic and the ability to defend the ball. So if we liken it to last season, I guess we needed someone who could change the game a bit more defensively for us,” Cooper said.
“Carter obviously won games for us off his own bat as far as scoring and he was phenomenal for us on that end, but we felt as a team we needed to be better defensively.
“It was unfortunate that we had to go down that path for Carter, but we think that Taj can help fix that as well as being a scorer and leader after being captain at his college (Fairfield University).
“Courtney is then one of those imports and I watched a lot of film of him, and games and highlights of him, and genuinely feel that he could be too good for this league if he has the potential that we think.
“He might be a one and done guy for us in terms of where he goes next, but we think if he can produce everything we think he can be a potential MVP of this league well and truly.”
Another addition at Cockburn for this season is combo guard Kieran Berry. He has played 92 games in the league already at the East Perth Eagles and Cooper is excited for what he can do sharing the role as playmaker with 266-game veteran and vice-captain Seva Chan.
“KB has been great. He was never on our radar because we had Matt Clifford but he’s decided to do some different things in life and basketball wasn’t one of them,” Cooper said.
“So we thought we needed someone in that backup role and my assistant Damian Barr mentioned that Kieran Berry wasn’t playing this year.
“I actually think he’s too good to be a backup guard and he could run a team on his own, so I met with him and we had a great conversation, and he’ll get his opportunities no doubt about it.
“Seva has been away a little bit so KB has been running the team and has got to know how it all works, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I think there’s still about another 25 per cent in him and he’s certainly fitted into the group. It’s pretty exciting for us to have a strong backup point guard.”
It’s been a long off-season for Cooper to stew over the way the semi-final ended against the Senators. It was a game Cockburn was on top of all night but a horror mix up on the last possession led to a Majok Majok open basket to give the Senators the win.
Cooper then watched on as the Rockingham Flames went on to win both the NBL1 West and National Championships when he felt the Cougars matched up well with them.
However, that pain is now something that he hopes can spur on the Cougars in 2023.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget it to be honest. And again when you sit back and reflect, it is a game we should have won. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
“Mistakes happen in basketball and that comes from players, coaches and everybody so if we could rewind I’m sure that wouldn’t happen again, but that’s just the way the game is sometimes. It’s certainly not the players fault only, it’s the coaching staff and everybody for how that ended.
“So we can reflect on that and fix that moving forward, but we definitely do use that as a bit of a spur on to the playing group knowing how close we were. At least it shows us what we can do and what we’re capable of.”
Now that Round 1 is under a week away which will see the Cougars host the Willetton Tigers on Saturday night, Cooper is looking forward to getting underway even if Gorjok Gak and Mark Worthington await in that first game.
“I’m not nervous anymore, I think I’ve done this long enough now where nerves don’t really kick in,” Cooper said.
“I’ll be honest, I’m cautious because I’ve seen a lot of activity around the league as far as signings are concerned and blind Freddy could work out that teams like Joondalup have really loaded up.
“But we sit down as a group and think there’s only one basketball, there’s only five players on the court at one time and we’re confident within our group that we have enough talent.
“Depth wise we are probably a little bit behind but we showed last year that if everyone can play their role and we can get it right, we’ll still be tough to beat and up there, there’s no doubt about it.”