Expectations are high at London Lions heading into Sunday’s BBL Cup final.

No shock there. League leaders. Bigger names from an enlarged budget.

Undoubted favourites to beat Newcastle Eagles in a showpiece hastily switched to Leicester Arena within the last 48 hours.

We know people are looking to us as winners-in-waiting, admits long-time Lions guard Andre Lockhart.

That leaves Eagles, five-times previous Cup holders, with nothing to lose and all the pressure on Vince Macaulay’s men, right?

“You know, it’s a weird question,” Lockhart tells MVP. “And the reason why I say that is because it does feel like that pressure should be on us and it should be win or bust.

“But in our league there are so many other trophies to get at the same time. So we can’t dwell on one cup, or one final. It’s onto the next. That’s how it is in our league.

“So I think, to be honest, I don’t want to say that we’re not expecting to win. We are trying our best to win. But at the end of the day, it’s a basketball game, and everyone puts the ball in the hoop the same way, puts their pants on the same way, and puts the jersey on the same way.”

However, such is the depth of London – bankrolled by their new US-based owners, 777 Partners – that they possess a depth chart in every position.

No matter that former NBA centre Byron Mullens arrived with high fanfare and then departed without noise or acknowledgement. Not a beat skipped. Up stepped Chris Tawiah with Faro Alihodzic and Shane Walker as commendable back-ups.

Kevin Ware and Justin Robinson can split time at point guard. But then Jules Dang Akodo and Lockhart, each talents in their own right, can pick up the slack.

Throw in the excellent form of ex-Cleveland Cavaliers forward DeAndre Liggins and the additional punch of Dirk Williams and Orlando Parker and it is not hard to see evidence of a club transforming itself, on and off the court.

“We’ve taken everything to another level completely, from our management from our staff,” Lockhart, now 34 and the club’s second-longest tenured player behind Joe Ikhinmwin, confides.

“I started off at Newcastle. And that was a very high standard. And the staff was great for me, being a pro in my rookie year. I was just like, ‘Whoa, this is like, legit.’ I was actually really impressed.

“And London Lions has just gone to the point this year, where we’ve actually gone beyond that. We’ve gone to such a level now that so much is expected of guys. And guys don’t have a problem with that.

“In other years, you’d have issues of: ‘I can’t do this or I can’t do that’ You don’t have ‘excuse guys’ anymore. You have guys just knowing this is our job. We need to do this at the best of our ability and a bit.

“And to be honest with you, I think we struck gold with the players we brought in.

“For example, DeAndre Liggins. From the day, he came into our club he was a no-nonsense person. Whatever coach has said we’re doing, he never complained. I’ve never heard him say ‘I don’t want to do this or don’t do that.’ He’s just done 110% of effort.

“How he plays in games is how he plays in practice every single day. Even when we say we’re going to go 70% he’s still going 110%. So people like that and their character that has shaped our club in a whole different dynamic with myself and Justin, Joe, just pushing guys in the right direction.

“We’ve just gone to another level.”

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Lions are aware that Newcastle are the only team to have beaten them in the league this term. By nine on Tyneside on opening night, a reverse avenged earlier this month in London when Williams unleashed in an 109-89 victory.

A sign of progress made, Lockhart declares, with Parker’s quiet addition so very impactful. Most observers believe they should be better, a little more locked in on occasion and set in their roles. Probably a fair assessment, he adds.

“But it’s been a huge learning curve for a lot of us, because we’re such a deep and talented team. But a lot is, on most good teams, you have to sacrifice to be successful in everything.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t hitting the ground running. But a lot of players that used to play in a certain way, had to get used to playing London Lions’ way.

“After we got to that point, and the newer guys understanding the league, I think we find ourselves in a little groove right now.”

Newcastle are used to winning prizes

Newcastle, Trophy victors at the end of last season, are bullish too. In good form and with a DNA that embraces games of significance.

We can undermine some of their strengths, forward Justin Gordon asserts.

“Being able to control when we can play our game and when we can do so in a way that doesn’t feed them and their strengths is going to be important,” the American told the BBL website.

“They have a lot of ways to score, contributors off the bench, great energy and size, but we just have to counter all of that.

“We know what they’re capable of, but in each match-up against them this season the winner has won the game in different ways, I think, as far as what gets us going or them, so we just have to do our best to be prepared for all of those things and notice early-on what we can do to not let them get comfortable.”

That’s entirely what London expects, adds Lockhart. The Lions are also gearing up for the start of their FIBA Europe Cup campaign this Tuesday when they will also add former Wake Forest big Doral Moore to their roster.

It helps on domestic and foreign fronts that they have got the best shot of everyone this term. Perched on high above the pack, you expect to feel the punches thrown from down below.

Bring them on, Lockhart smiles. If Macaulay’s men are as good as we anticipated, then now is the time to reap the rewards.

“Just to think of our team sometimes just gets me very excited. Because I just know how much potential we have. How good we can be.

“But you always try to tell everyone that we haven’t done nothing yet. Winning one game against whoever doesn’t really mean nothing.”

Watch the BBL Cup final streamed on on Sunday from 3.20pm.

Photos: Ahmedphotos

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