Plymouth Raiders coach Gavin Love: It's the first time the players have really come together this season
GAVIN LOVE says Marjon Plymouth Raiders' team spirit has never been better this season.
Raiders are entering the third of a three-week break in their BBL Championship schedule.
The window in their calendar has allowed a seven-strong senior squad to catch their breath in a trying campaign.
Four other senior players have come and gone in 2012/13, including, notably, two starting point-guards, Jeremy Bell in January and his successor Rod Brown at the end of February.
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Big-men Anthony Rowe and Liam Potter are the other names to have left.
Marry that disruption to hot and cold form, which has been consistently inconsistent, and Raiders' camp has almost inevitably been an unhappy one behind closed doors at times this season.
Despite all that – and credit the players and coach Love – Raiders remain a decent dark horse to win the BBL play-offs in April.
Next season Love aims to launch a legitimate challenge to win the league title.
For now, the focus is fixed on adding a second BBL crown to the one Raiders have won – the BBL Trophy in 2007 – since joining British basketball's elite in 2004.
"The last two weeks have been brilliant," said Love, whose team next visit defending champions Newcastle Eagles in the league this Friday.
"They couldn't have gone any better. Sometimes you think, 'Oh, two weeks off. We haven't got anything to actually train for'. But I've got everybody playing now how I want them to play."
Raiders have used 14 different players in league games this season, marginally below the BBL average of 15.2 per team.
Eagles, for whom consistency is king under coach Fab Flournoy, have used the least, 10, while leaders Leicester Riders have employed the most, 21.
The high-profile nature of stars like Bell and Brown, who have left Raiders this season, has distorted the feeling of disruption at the Pavilions.
Raiders also enjoyed greater continuity last season when they used only 10 players.
"A lot of other teams have made changes like we have. It's only magnified here in Plymouth," said Love.
"The group we have together now is great. We've had success with this group this season.
"I'm happy. Everybody's on the same page and the atmosphere right now is the best it's been all season. It's really good. It's the first time the group has really come together.
"We have seven professionals and they're all doing exactly what I want them to do."
Guard Drew Lasker, set to run Raiders' offence post-Brown, said: "Now we're down to a seven-man rotation, everybody knows they're going to play and contribute.
"That changes people's mindset and suddenly everybody plays a little bit harder in practice, and the camaraderie now is great.
"I've noticed the difference in practice. We've started to build some chemistry. You can see combinations of guys talking to each other and that's what happens when guys get comfortable with one another."
Lasker, referring to the turnover of players at the Pavilions this season, added: "I can't say it hasn't been entertaining and I can't say I have been in this situation before.
"The other day I found a copy of The Herald from last year which carried our team photo ahead of the new season. I was like, 'Wow. We are completely different from that photo'.
"It's been a different challenge, but I always enjoy it. It's a blessing to play professional basketball at the age of 30."
In the final month of the BBL regular season, which climaxes on April 7, Love will rotate guards Lasker, Michael Ojo and Colin O'Reilly, forwards Javarris Barnett and Jamal Williams, and big-men Matt Schneck and Andreas Schreiber.
It will be the new-look line-up's full debut at Eagles this Friday, although last time out – in an encouraging, 104-100 home win over Durham Wildcats on February 22 – Brown featured only fleetingly off the bench, in his final Raiders appearance because of an ankle sprain.
Lasker said: "This year more than ever, guys have had to be professional – because we're players, we can't control who comes and goes at the club.
"Our job is to play and handle the situations thrown at us.
"You have to do your best to integrate new guys onto the team."
Raiders began this campaign with an eight-deep roster.
Lasker added: "It's always difficult in this league when you have eight solid guys who can all play.
"I wouldn't want his (Love's) job of managing eight egos, because everybody wants to play. One week, one guy might be happy, but the sacrifice is someone else being upset.
"I think we've handled it as well as we could with the expectations there are in Plymouth."
Lasker continued: "When you lose games, that's when you find out what type of person guys you haven't played with before really are.
"It's easier to come off the bench when you're winning, but when you're losing guys become frustrated and say, 'Well, I should be playing more, because that guy isn't playing well'. That's when you get guys snickering."
Love said: "Sometimes chemistry clicks perfectly and sometimes it doesn't.
"I'm not saying team chemistry hasn't been there this season, but if it hasn't and we're still on course to finish third then we've done a good job.
"I think that's what you have to look at – we're still where we are."
BBL Trophy Final: Leicester 69 Sheffield 71
BBL Championship: Worcester 94 London 76, Cheshire 90 Worcester 121, Surrey 99 Mersey 71