Crunching numbers and meticulously jotting down minute details on teams and players are what assistant coach Morgan Maskell is adept at for the Hawks during the National Basketball League.

But that doesn't mean Maskell hasn't been able to find time to map the behavioural patterns of the match officials for the Taylor Corporation Hawks this winter.

"The referees allowed the [Wellington] Saints to be very physical in pushing the boundaries of what is legal in our sport," says the 26-year-old who, while he has a propensity to become a silhouette in the presence of coach Zico Coronel at the Pettigrew-Green Arena in Napier, doesn't miss a beat.

"I think it's a lesson to us so we've got to learn from it and be more physical, especially with a lack of [Daniel] Kickert," he says before the Jarrod Kenny-skippered Hawks tip off against defending champions Southland Sharks in the round 12 clash at Taradale from 7pm today.

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An hour before the 99-74 loss to the Saints here last Saturday, it was posted on the Basketball New Zealand website that Australian import Kickert was bowing out of the hosts' campaign after battling with an ongoing back injury that saw the 35-year-old centre make just a couple of cameo appearances since arriving in Napier from Sydney with his family before the season tipped off in April.

Melbourne-born Kickert, who is serving a five-match World Cup-qualifying match suspension for his role in the Boomers v Philippines brawl in July last year, had minimal game time since the season opening-match loss to Wellington.

Former Hawk big man Angus Brandt, who had endorsed Kickert as an ideal replacement for him after Brandt's maiden stint here last year, had even made the trip across to play three rounds while American power forward Brandon Bowman was still plying his trade in Israel.

However, Maskell reckons because the Hawks have lost someone of that stature, it's even more reason to raise the physicality stakes.

"We have to fight even harder, you know, scratch and claw and I think our team reflects the Hawke's Bay community in some ways, so we'll get there.

"We're not going to win that height battle so we need to fight even harder than the other teams are willing to fight."

In some respects, defeat can reveal any flaws in the system, thanks to the undefeated, table-topping Saints marching on towards title contention.

"Win or loss, all we trying to do is learn — from each possession, game and training in getting better and better at basketball," he says.

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Becoming Final Four-savvy at Horncastle Arena, in Christchurch, on July 20-21 is imperative.

Australian import centre Daniel Kickert (standing) talks to fellow Hawks as they warm down after the loss to the Saints in Napier last Saturday before jetting back to Sydney. Photo/Photosport
Australian import centre Daniel Kickert (standing) talks to fellow Hawks as they warm down after the loss to the Saints in Napier last Saturday before jetting back to Sydney. Photo/Photosport

Maskell says losing Kickert means they will miss his presence on the inside but players in the Hawks' equation were capable of stepping up.

"The bigger the bite we have the better we'll be, so basically we need to bar up and get physical," says the former Rangitoto College (Auckland) student who took up coaching in the first year after he finished high school.

The Auckland University double degree (commerce, majoring in finance, and science and sports science) graduate has always had a penchant for helping in basketball, especially at youth level and coaches the Napier Girls' High School first team.

However, Maskell acknowledges the Hawks, who have dropped to third place on the ladder behind the Canterbury Rams, haven't been rebounding well this season and that attitude needs to change dramatically soon.

"We want to be the best rebounding team in the league so I believe it all comes down to fight at the end of the day and that's one big focus for us," he says.

The Sharks are in fourth place and have rounded off the Final Four although the Rams, akin to the defending champions, have played one more game than the Hawks.

Despite the hoops spurning the Hawks' sharp shooters last weekend, Maskell doesn't think their three-point blueprint is under any threat.

"I think we're on a record-setting pace in our league so the points we're putting out in the efficiency of our shots is okay," he says, ruling out reports of avoiding the Saints in the semifinals.

"No matter who's in front of us we're trying to get as good as we can in basketball because you're not always going to win the trophy whether it's age group, NBL or NBA even
but you can improve and learn every day."

If anything, Maskell says oppositions should try to avoid the Hawks who have an impressive offence which is hard to defend.

The Sharks are coming off a 122-79 victory on Thursday with no fewer than eight players in double-digit scoring, with Australian import Todd Blanchfield claiming a match-high 25 points.

Australian import Todd Blanchfield has been putting up the numbers for the Southland Sharks. Photo/Photosport
Australian import Todd Blanchfield has been putting up the numbers for the Southland Sharks. Photo/Photosport

Maskell, in sifting through his spools of videotaped footage of the Sharks' matches, has been scouting Blanchfield who is shooting around the 53 per cent mark.

"He was really cold at the start of the season but we all know how good Todd is as an MVP level player in the Australian league," he says of the Illawarra marquee shooting guard who will earn a lot of respect from the Hawks defence.

"The challenge for Todd also will be in stopping our threes as well so it might be a bit of a battle between our shooters and him."

With Jarrad Weeks out it'll be interesting to see who assumes the mantle of Sharks point guard although Brandon Lucas looks like the next cab off the rank with Roberto Nelson also ruled out.

Then there's the imposing frame of centre Alex Pledger to contend with in rebounding, something Saints big men Nick Kay and Thomas Abercrombie had accentuated last Saturday.

"Pledger is a bloody big bastard, you know, so he does his job well inside and has been in the national team for a number of years so it's going to be one big task to stop him," he says, revealing the Hawks have a plan in place for that.

Maskell confirms Bowman was battling the effects of influence last Saturday but the "absolute warrior" had stepped up regardless.

"We've seen what a healthy Bowman does to this league so I'm expecting another big show from him [tonight}."

Swingman Ethan Rusbatch, who is in the Tall Blacks equation to the Fiba World Cup in China later this year, also had lifted the intensity of the game even though his shooting had come up a little shy from his normal input.

"I don't know, I thought he took the right shots and they just didn't go in that much for him on that day so I was happy with Ethan."

With basketball booming at the grassroots level in the Bay, Maskell says it was great to see a house-full PG Arena last Saturday and urges the faithful to turn out again for a humdinger tonight.

"We need that every week because we're considered one of the most exciting basketball teams to watch in our country," he says, adding Basketball HB, the amateur body, also is thriving.

"If the number of young is up then, hopefully, it means future generations of Hawks are in there somewhere and taking of the sport in this region which is dominated by netball and rugby."

Hawks import power forward Brandon Bowman was battling influenza but he still put in a good shift against the Saints last Saturday. Photo/Photosport
Hawks import power forward Brandon Bowman was battling influenza but he still put in a good shift against the Saints last Saturday. Photo/Photosport