Nuggets look to spring surprise

Otago Nuggets coach Brent Matehaere lays down the instructions during a training session at the...
Otago Nuggets coach Brent Matehaere lays down the instructions during a training session at the Edgar Centre. PHOTO: LINDA ROBERTSON
The Otago Nuggets are chasing a third title in five years. Adrian Seconi catches up with coach Brent Matehaere ahead of their opening game against the Southland Sharks in Dunedin this afternoon.

White sneakers. Blue suit.

Otago Nuggets coach Brent Matehaere is hard to miss on the sideline.

He has been a talismanic figure since the team emerged from the wilderness four years ago to win the 2020 Showdown.

He was still at the helm two years later when the Nuggets won the full NBL title in 2022, and he is chasing a third banner in five years.

Matehaere is excited about the talented roster they have put together for the campaign.

Former Tall Black Tai Webster will lead a back-court that includes young guns Ben Henshall and Dontae Russo-Nance.

The two American imports, Kimani Lawrence and Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, have solid resumes, and Matehaere is confident Jack Andrew will fill the void left by the departure of star centre Sam Timmins.

The coach has also been given a few ideas for his pre-game speech by the critics.

Some prominent commentators are picking the Nuggets to miss the six-team playoffs. The Nuggets do not have a frontline centre, they say. The imports are not off the same quality as in previous seasons and other teams are just better, apparently.

Matehaere has heard it all before.

"It is not unusual for people to underestimate us," he said.

"But this is also our journey and it is about whether we can rise up and achieve what we want to achieve, really."

The Nuggets open their campaign against the Southland Sharks in Dunedin this afternoon.

Matehaere expected to have a full roster available — with a couple of exceptions and the odd proviso.

He was not sure if Darko-Kelly would make it to Dunedin in time, and point guard Russo-Nance has a wrist injury and will miss the opener and possibly a few more games as well.

Experienced forward Josh Aitcheson has also been scratched due to a hamstring complaint.

The teams met during the preseason. The Sharks had more or less a full roster, while the Nuggets were missing their starting five, but still prevailed 82-81.

Matt Bardsley starred with 19 points, and he is a player the Nuggets will look to throughout the season to add some energy from the bench.

The Nuggets’ depth will be tested, and one area where teams will look to attack the Nuggets is in the paint.

Timmins has looked after the post for the past three seasons, but that role has fallen to Andrew this season, and Matehaere is confident he will surprise a few people.

But what other teams might see as a weakness, Matehaere sees as a trap.

"Obviously the challenge of playing against rim-protecting teams with big front lines means we will need to exploit our strengths and try to mitigate theirs."

Roughly translated, that means the Nuggets will look to get up and down the court rapidly.

Lawrence is strong and can defend the post if he has to, while the Nuggets have not seen the best of Andrew yet. He had a knee complaint last season that held him back but he has had another year at the Perth Wildcats and is ready for the challenge ahead.

The Auckland Tuatara, Canterbury Rams, Wellington Saints and Taranaki Airs are attracting a lot of attention as the teams to beat.

The Tuatara have finished runner-up twice in their two years in the league and they have put together an all-star cast again.

But the Nuggets showed in 2022 that if you can get into the playoffs in good shape, then you are a chance.

"There are some teams that look stacked in talent, but there is only one basketball on the court."

Otago Nuggets

The season begins


Today, 3pm: v Sharks, Dunedin

April 5: v Jets, Dunedin

April 13: v Saints, Dunedin

April 18: v Bulls, Auckland

April 25: v Rams, Dunedin

May 2: v Rams, Christchurch

May 5: v Giants, Dunedin

May 8: v Whai, Tauranga

May 11: v Hawks, Taradale

May 16: v Tuatara, Dunedin

May 25: v Sharks, Invercargill

May 31: v Airs, New Plymouth

June 2: v Jets, Palmerston North

June 8: v Hawks, Dunedin

June 12: v Airs, Dunedin

June 19: v Tuatara, Auckland

June 23: v Whai, Dunedin

June 29: v Saints, Wellington

July 5: v Giants, Nelson

July 13: v Bulls, Dunedin


Jack Andrew, Joe Ahie, Josh Aitcheson, Matt Bardsley, Robbie Coman, Zaccheus Darko-Kelly, Benji Freeman, Ben Henshall, Mitchell Hughan, Darcy Knox, Kimani Lawrence, Matt Pyper, Michael Ruske, Dontae Russo-Nance, Caleb Smiler, Tai Webster. Coach: Brent Matehaere, assistants Sam Senior, Ben Peterson and Dan Vlahov.