Sunday sees the best ballers in Ireland head to the UK to try and pull off a big upset over their compatriots in the British Basketball League (BBL) for the second year straight. Emmet Ryan spoke with Mark Keenan, coach of the Irish Men’s Premier Select Team (MPSL), about their quest for glory in Birmingham.

Mark Keenan became a big deal just as Irish basketball entered its dark age, well the first as it was punctuated by a turn of the century revival, as he led an all-conquering St Vincent’s team to national cup and league success in the early 90s. Here was this 5’6″ nobody playing a vital role on the best team in the game as far as Irish viewers were concerned. Since hanging up his kicks, Keenan has enjoyed similar success as a coach. Last season he coached UL Eagles to the league title and a losing appearance in the cup final. Keenan was also the man in charge when an unfancied selection from the Irish league topped a BBL select team just hours before the BBL Cup Final.

Keenan’s back again with a squad containing just four members of that victorious roster. They head to Birmingham this weekend looking to build on a rout of a Welsh selection earlier this season. With no national team to aim for, this is the peak for many Irish players. Rare as the opportunity to play an international, even a quasi one, is the realities of life have somewhat stymied preparations. Of tbe 29 players invited to camp, only 17 could make themselves available for the weekend commitment in Birmingham. With the national cup semi finals on Friday night, many of the amateur outfit couldn’t commit the extra time off work or away from their families. Keenan however is confident in the 12 man roster he has. Now there’s just the small matter of preparing for an opponent of who they know little.

“We had to do some homework. Last we I watched a lot of BBL games on TV, as much as I could. With players I wasn’t familiar with, I bounced them off Colin O’Reilly an Irish player who played in the BBL. I’ve taken a similar approach this year watching them online and Colin’s helped out again with the players I haven’t seen too much of,” Keenan told Ballineurope.com.

Most of the roster will be playing in those cup semi finals on Friday and Keenan knows he’ll have to deal with players still thinking about those games. “We had no problems last year, we got focussed quickly on our own game. There’ll be a bit of slagging about the games but we’ve a good spirit in the group and they’ll quickly get focussed on the task at hand,” says Keenan.
Bord Gaid Neptune and UCC Demons make up a large portion of the squad. Keenan said this will help get an unfamiliar squad on the same page quickly. “It helps with chemistry, especially if I have two or three players from the one club on together,” says Keenan.

“We keep [our game plan] really simple. We have a few sets carrying on from last year, we’re not overloading the lads. We’ve only had two sessions so far and we’ll only have one more, on Saturday, before the game. It’s really simple and basic but it’s all about gelling together really quickly,” he says.

The most dangerous man on the MPSL roster however could be one of the few not playing in the cup semi finals on Friday night. UL Eagles’ point guard Scott Kinevane has averaged 11.9 points and 8.4 assists per game this season. Kinevane missed some action with injury but the league assists leader, a category he leads by 3.3 APG, should feature prominently on Sunday. “He’s back from injury, back to full fitness, and we’ll need his quickness and sharpness against the BBL,” said Keenan.

The MPSL coach said the game would also put several of the roster in the shop window ad attract the attention of clubs elsewhere in Europe. “It’s a great opportunity to showcase themselves. We’re allowed bring two imports and one Bosman European. It’s a great chance for them to showcase their talents in terms of moving on to a higher level,” said Keenan.

With his own Eagles out of the running for the cup, Keenan put his neck on the line and made his calls for the semi finals, Killester vs Demons and Neptune vs Dublin Inter. “If I was a betting man, I might put a few quid on Killester to overturn their last league game with Demons and beat them in Cork. It’s going to be hard to see Inter beating Neptune on their home court. If Neptune are not complacent, I’d say they’ll take that one,” says Keenan.

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