Bendigo Bank Spirit will get a good early guide to their finals aspirations when WNBL action resumes after the Christmas break.
The Spirit, under second-year coach Simon Pritchard, head into the new year in second place on the league ladder with a solid 10-5 record, one win behind ladder leaders Dandenong Rangers (11-4).
Perth Lynx (9-5) lie directly below the Spirit, having played one less game, with Sydney Uni Flames (8-5) holding on to fourth spot having played two less games.
In a WNBL season as even as the previous one, Townsville Fire (fifth, 8-7) and Canberra Capitals (sixth, 7-7) are both capable contenders to dislodge the current top four from their spot.
While a still relatively new-look Spirit, with two new starters from last season and four recruits in total, remains a work in progress, there’s a feeling much about the team will be revealed early in the new year.
The Spirit’s first three games back from the break will come against the trio of teams immediately below them on the ladder, starting with 2015-16 runners-up Perth away from Bendigo Stadium on January 7.
A clash against Sydney Uni Flames, the only team to have beaten the Spirit twice this season, follows on January 13 ahead of a second trip to Townsville on January 20.
The match in Perth will be the second this season between the two teams, who will meet again in Bendigo in the final week on February 19.
The trek to Perth will hold no fears for the Spirit, who defeated the Lynx there during November, 84-71.
Kelsey Griffin was the star on that occasion with 31 points and eight rebounds, ably supported by gun import Nayo Raincock-Ekune (18 points, six rebounds).
It’s hard not to think of those two players as being the keys to the Spirit’s long-term hopes, especially two-time WNBL grand final MVP Griffin, who is growing stronger in confidence and productivity as the season grows longer.
She is averaging 15.87 points and 8.13 rebounds on the season and was particularly damaging in a pre-Christmas win against Canberra with 12 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots.
The Spirit have seen the last of top side Dandenong and hold a 2-1 series advantage over the Rangers should the tie-breaker come into effect.
A 70-55 win over Sydney Uni in December left the Spirit within one win of clinching that series, despite trailing 1-2 in game splayed.
The 15-point margin was enough to give the Spirit a plus-two points advantage, making a win in a fortnight’s time at home essential.
Of its challengers for a finals berth, Dandenong looks best placed.
The Rangers have the easiest remaining schedule with two games each to come against seventh placed Melbourne Boomers (4-10) and winless Adelaide Lightning and a further two against Townsville Fire, which has struggled mightily to replicate their championship winning form of last season.