Charles Smith will cast an envious eye in the direction of Guildford Heat this week as last season’s double winners head into Europe. But the Newcastle veteran claims the Eagles are bang on course to follow Paul James’ men into continental battle next year after a storming start to the season.
The men in black racked up an eigth straight win on Friday night as old foes Plymouth were finally brushed aside at the Metro Radio Arena. And that victory put Newcastle four points clear of ULEB Cup contenders Heat – with Guildford due to fly out to Bosnia today ahead of Tuesday’s opening group game.
“It would have been great to play in Europe this season,” admitted Smith. “Maybe next year we can be there. I’m not jealous of Guildford and I think everyone in the BBL is wishing them all the best. But of course I’d like to compete in the ULEB Cup. It’s so important for the BBL that they give a good account of themselves. They’re representing British basketball and flying the flag for this country abroad. The last two BBL clubs who competed at that level didn’t do us any favours at all. They set us back a few years. But the Heat have been given a chance to show this league means business and although they’re in a tough group they have a good team and a great track record.”
Newcastle had the chance to make their ULEB Cup bow two seasons ago but due to the restriction of spots in the competition at that time, the opportunity was not available. The competition has seen expansion from 24 to 50 clubs this summer and is set for further expansion in future years.
The Eagles continued development on and off the court suggests a foreign adventure is not far off. As the most successful British club in recent years Newcastle meet all the criteria required to launch a ULEB Cup campaign.
And Blake had a series of meetings with Euroleague chief Jordi Bertomeu last season – paving the way for more BBL teams to join the Heat in the future.
“If we keep on playing the way we’re playing and making the progress we’re making next season shouldn’t be too soon for Newcastle,” added Smith. I think it’s always been the aim of this franchise to take that next step and as players we’d be right behind the move.”
On current form even Guildford will do well to halt Newcastle’s march towards a second clean sweep this season. The Heat remain the only team to beat Fab Flournoy’s Eagles following their opening weekend triumph on Tyneside way back in September.
But Newcastle have rolled off eight big wins since that early setback and Friday’s 87-79 victory against the Raiders was par for the course for the three-peat Playoff champions.
The Eagles scorched into a 14-point first period lead only to ease off against Geordie playcaller Gary Stronach’s men. And Plymoouth overturned that deficit to lead 39-37 with three minutes of the half remaining.
“I think we found ourselves in the comfort zone far too early and that nearly cost is big time,” added Smith, who bagged 20 points. Instead of knuckling down we knew we could ease off and still take a lead into the second period. But Plymouth are too good to let us do that. They’re the BBL Trophy holders and they’ll be challenging for silverware again this season. They play hard defence and they can put on points quickly. In the end it was a battle but it was a battle we won.”