2016 FBA Season/15.12.23/[email protected]/Capsule

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As us insiders sat down to compile our predictions for the 2016 FBA Season, there was a single statement everyone was willing to agree with: only a miracle could save the Biloxi Voodoo from being this year’s cellar dwellers. With one-eighth of the season already played, though, the ragtag army from Mississippi has turned that bleak expectation into their strongest drive as they top a toughly-contested Eastern Conference with a 7-2 record and a 3-game winning streak.

It certainly didn’t look that way one month ago. Losing Albert Jon Middendorff (Kodiak Bear, F/G) and Rosalie Smoot (American Bison, F/C), arguably the staples of Biloxi’s lucky streak at the end of last season, looked awful on paper – especially when compared to the paucity of the replacements who were brought in. Really, when the only interest a team can cater during Free Agency is bound to the return of 34-year-old Lucas Dupre (Red Fox, G), only two years after leaving his beloved Mississippi bayou for the Bangor Tides’ insane contract, you just know something has gone wrong at some point of the process. Especially when Smoot, a serviceable bigfur with the numbers to become a franchise cornerstone, relocates to Florida in order to get a concrete shot at the loot, something she felt she wouldn’t ever get if she stayed loyal to the red-and-purple.

I know it’s early to say, but I find hard to believe the bison’s not second-guessed her judgement yet.

It’s somewhat strange that GM Macon Waldrop has not changed much since last season, and at the same time the team looks like a separate entity from last year’s. Most of the changes have happened within the bench, clearly Biloxi’s main weakness during last season – now one of the Voodoo’s strengths with the likes of Michael Porter (Mallard, F/C) and Ryan Thatcher (American Beaver, G/F) coming off the pine. Neil Charlton (Snowy Egret, F) and Sarah Lancaster (Cheetah, G) have given way to Lee Evans (Great Dane, F) (a huge bet by Waldrop which is just starting to pay off) and either Theodore Sanftner (Prairie Dog, G) or Dupre, although the fox’s frailty has somewhat limited his impact so far. This kind of interchangeability between first and second strings is paying off big time, as the Voodoo have managed to keep up the number of Ws with a number of their players still working their way back from injuries.

Who impressed the most so far, though, is 39-year-old head coach Vincent Wei (Dhole, F). After spending the past three years under Howard Schnitthund’s command in Huntsville, the Hong-Kong born British dhole was called by Waldrop to fill in the blank left by the sack of Jeremiah Vanhorn (Flamingo, F), a local idol whose coaching style never seemed to be up-to-par with his on-court resume. Wei has managed to successfully bring his European approach to the game, even in a roster where the top 10 rotation players are fully American. Teamwork, cohesiveness and focus on defense are the keys of Biloxi’s newfound success, a far cry from the not-so-golden era of primadonnas and Clyde Everly-sized egos. Last night’s match-up against the Alaska Arctics showed all of that and then some.

Despite having just eleven active players on roster, the Voodoo upped the intensity in the first quarter and never let go. Six players went double-digits when compared to Alaska’s four, with Biloxi’s upper bench (Lancaster with 14 points, Charlton and Thatcher with 9) really making the difference against ALK’s Paramonimos Konstantidis (Griffon Vulture, F), Otis Najac (Bat-eared Fox, G/F) (the distant cousin of the player we could admire in Tallahassee last season) and Cameroonian rookie rhino Ogun Okayu (Rhinoceros, C/F), who still seems to be afflicted by the challenges of cultural adaptation.

Yet after everything was said and done, it was still up to Biloxi’s unlikely couple to light up the boards. Craig Reinhardt (Black Panther, F/C) and Lee Evans brought their A-game to Crawdad Stadium yet again, shocking the onlookers for the umpteenth time this season.

Before this season, Craig Donta Reinhardt was considered as little more than a draft bust. The black panther from Bedford, Virginia quietly joined Biloxi – his fifth team in five seasons – at the beginning of September, with people expecting him to be the second or even third center in Biloxi’s rotation once Free Agency was over. Yet as Smoot, then Kilisimasi Fu’afu’a (Huon tree kangaroo, C/F), then Shubhra Rajni (Indian Elephant, C) found their collocation elsewhere, Craig’s stock raised up exponentially until he found himself starting at C for the third game of the season. It was the opportunity the big feline had been longing for – to the point of alienating himself to several court offices around the league – and he seized it big time, getting his first PotG with a 10 pts, 15 rebs showing in a 91-83 winning effort against one of his former teams, the Las Vegas Wildcards. Other two double-doubles followed that first, Reinhardt capping a wonderful week with 11/10 tonight against the Arctics.

"I do expect they raise my 2K16 rating after this,” Reinhardt stated in the post-game interview. “I mean, I was a beast out there, all of y’all saw that. I’m a killer. Those you’re all callin’ the best bigs in the league – Barrett, Turner, Brylee, whoever – they all got nothing on me. And don’t get me started on that punkass weasel kiddo from Montana…can’t wait to take all of them down a few notches.”

Just by looking at these words, you can easily get how Reinhardt found himself on conflict with most teammates. But nobody could predict how the arrogant panther would quickly gel with his Biloxi brethren, mostly thanks to the help of an unlikely partner in crime.

When Lee signed with Biloxi during 2014 Free Agency, the local press presented him as Macon Waldrop’s big bet. The great dane was poised to replace Charlton and Lancaster as team leader, both in mentality and contribution, but for some reason he never took off under Vanhorn. The flamingo coach put more trust in Neil Charlton and then-rookie Warren Doyle (Spotted Hyena/Coyote, G/F), so much that Evans found himself covering the role of little more than a dignified sixth fur, much to his dismay after Waldrop’s bombastic proclamations.

With Wei at the helm, though, things have changed radically for the canine forward. Since the first game, Evans has made a strong bid as Biloxi’s future captain, establishing himself as a strong triple threat with solid numbers in both scoring, rebounding and passing. It was the canine’s job to ramp up the intensity in the final minutes, once Dupre had to be escorted out after spraining his thigh – and he stepped up to the challenge, getting his third PotG of the season after a mighty contribution of 14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks.

What’s more impressive is that the canine and feline seem to have struck an odd friendship, one that’s benefitting the game of both. It’s not surprising once you think about it: Evans’ cockiness and focus on the game definitely match Reinhardt’s pound-for-pound, although the canine is remarkably quieter about it. Yet these two clashing personalities, instead of going at each other like cat and dog, seem to have taken another approach to their work relationship – something everyone around the team is thankful for.

“Craig is a force to be reckoned with, both on court and in the training room. I’m nothing but glad to have him around,” Evans spoke to our microphones, right after the win against the Arctics. “I think he can be the second coming of Julio Onca (Black Panther, F/C). In fact, I take it back – I think he’s going to be even better than Onca, because he doesn’t [expletive deleted] up. As much as he unleashes his fury on the opponents, he never lets them get into his head.”

But where can the newfound power couple of Evans and Reinhardt lead the unlikely contenders? The team’s head coach is still pretty cautious about that. “It’s easy to get these early wins get to your head,” the dhole says. “We’re still learning what our limits are and exactly where our strengths can bring us. But I think we can go a long way teaching a number of teams how the traditional, star-centered approach doesn’t always work when compared to teamwork and sacrifice to the cause. Apparently, I can bring something out of guys like Evans and Reinhardt that other coaches and other teams wouldn’t,” he points out with a knowing smile. “Maybe that’s what happens when you sell hard enough the notion that success doesn’t happen without teamwork, and that everyone’s egos need to be put aside for the greater good. We’ll see who’s right.”

We’ll see indeed. But if Wei’s got this – Biloxi might soon turn it into a weapon more lethal than voodoo.

~G. Whitewater

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