Riders' ambitions hit by loss of key players

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The Independent Online

The Birmingham Bullets and Leicester Riders lift the curtain on the new British Basketball League campaign at Aston Villa tomorrow, but the watching coaches and leading players at the televised showpiece game know it will be the team that "gets it right on the night" in eight months' time that takes the Championship.

Riders proved that last season, by creeping into the play-off quarter-finals in eighth place, then defeating Milton Keynes Lions and the Conference champions London Towers and Sheffield Sharks with three inspirational performances.

However, their coach, Billy Mims, will start this campaign without three key players. "Malcolm Leak and Larry Johnson didn't accept our offers and Purnell Perry received an offer from Korea he would have been crazy not to accept," he said.

With Sheffield, the League trophy holders Chester Jets and Newcastle Eagles the favourites to fill the top three places, Mims could again be scrapping for the fourth qualifying spot from the northern conference with Edinburgh Rocks.

The South looks far more open, particularly as the Birmingham Bullets and London Towers face demanding European campaigns. The Bullets play in the North European Basketball League, with the Towers in the Euroleague before joining the second stage of the NEBL after Christmas.

Lino Frattin, the Towers coach, led them to the Championship in 1999 and returns from a season in Italy to replace Nick Nurse, but faces major injury worries before the full schedule begins this weekend.

Leopards have to adjust to a new coach, Chris Pullem, who has inherited the team of the departed Bob Donewald, while Nurse is certain to get more out of the Brighton Bears franchise than his predecessors.

Add Thames Valley Tigers and Milton Keynes Lions and all six from the South have legitimate expectations of a place in the play-offs. From there, as Mims proved last season, who knows?