It’s called the regular season. But there’s been nothing regular about the first foray of the St. John’s Edge in the National Basketball League of Canada.
A deal to operate out of Mile One Centre was completed just two months before the start of the 2017-18 schedule. Jeff Dunlap was named the team’s head coach 10 days later as part of a lead-up so compressed that he was introduced to the community at the same time as the team announced its name, colours and logo.
“It all happened so fast and there was so little prep time that it made the next task, which was assembling a team, all the tougher,” said Dunlap.
“I was handed the keys to a car with no gas in it.”
That may have been the case, but today, the car is running fine and the needle is much closer to full than empty. Heading into tonight’s game against the Windsor Express (7 p.m.) at Mile One Centre, the Edge (15-8) are tied for first place overall in the 10-team league with the defending champion London Lightning. And with an average attendance of approximately 3.300 per game (second-best in a league where the overall average is just about 1,900), the hoopsters have been a hit with fans.
“There’s a lot of booby traps in our schedule. But we’ve survived so far. We’ve done OK, obviously, but we have a ways to go.”
Those crowds have witnessed a team that’s gone 8-2 at Mile One and has managed a winning record away from home despite a harrowing road schedule.
“We got lucky,” said Dunlap. “We pressed some buttons and we were fortunate to have some good contacts out there and people to help me put together a roster that’s turned out to be pretty good … and we’ve been able to make some good moves after the fact.”
Tonight’s game and a Wednesday rematch with the Express (10-12) are part of what might be seen as some schedule normalcy for the Edge — a four-game homestand played over six days.
Little else about the schedule has been normal.
“It’s s really kind of a hodge-podge,” said Dunlap. “I understand why that is, because we were late coming into the league. That created problems with arena availability and scheduling conflicts.
“But it’s crazy to have nine games in 13 days (the Edge’s schedule before this homestand) including five games in six days on the road and then to come home and have two weeks off.”
Dunlap has plenty of coaching experience — more than 30 years in the U.S. college ranks — but this was new territory.
That territory might actually be seen as a minefield, or as Dunlap puts it, “a maze.”
“I don’t know if I’ve done the right things or the wrong things,” said Dunlap. “We’re only (just past) the halfway point (of the season), so there’s lots of time to find out, but our schedule has been a maze as we’ve tried to determine whether we should turn left or right. Wherever we’ve turned, we’ve ended facing things that as players and coaches we haven’t faced before.
“Physical conditioning became a huge priority ... (trying not to) exhaust your players and trying to keep them injury-free as best you can, but that’s very hard with that kind of a taxing schedule,” added Dunlap, who has two players (Colton Ray and Jordan Jensen-Whyte) on injured reserve and others on the active roster, but hurting — new guard Caron Williams, for example, missed Saturday’s 104-100 win over the Moncton Magic, but is expected to play tonight.
“On the flip side,” continued Dunlap, “when you have long breaks like we’ve had, you have to be smart about keeping them stimulated … giving them time off but keeping them sharp.
But I’ve never had gaps like that between games before.
“It’s nobody’s fault, but there’s a lot of booby traps in our schedule. But we’ve survived so far. We’ve done OK, obviously, but we have a ways to go.”
In surviving those booby-traps, in mostly avoiding the pitfalls, the Edge players have shown Dunlap that they are contenders, in more than one sense of the word.
“This is going to be a dogfight down the stretch to get into the playoffs and that’s going to be even more of a dogfight,” he said.
“I can’t say for sure if we’re going to win, it all, but I don’t we’re going to cave either. I think I have team that’s going to rise to the challenge, because we already have.”