The first of BallinEurope’s league previews stays close to home with Ireland expanding and rebranding for 2016/17
It’s a big time of change in Irish basketball. The national teams returned in the summer, with the men coming fourth at the European Small Countries Championship and the women earning the silver medal. While the women still have an international series with Iceland to look forward to, the men’s side of the game is firmly back on the club scene with UCC Demons facing the biggest change of all.
The Cork side, which won the league title and the Champions Trophy last season, lost its player-coach Colin O’Reilly in the off-season. Having guided Demons to an unbeaten season in 2014/15 and winning two of three trophies on offer last year, O’Reilly is returning to the British Basketball League as coach of the Cheshire Phoenix. He’s a big loss but his impact is going to be hard to read early. O’Reilly’s impact from deep is going to be the hardest to replace, his threat with the three was excellent for Demons’ spacing and losing his leadership on the floor is an obvious hole. That said, this is still an extraordinarily deep club, its bench has long been rated amongst the best in the league, and their ability to rotate heavily ensures they will be contenders again if not the out and out favourites.
The biggest challenge should come from Templeogue. Last year’s cup winners have a roster that is still young enough but getting better with age. The player to watch this season will be Sean Flood. Having played a starring role in that cup triumph, the youngster followed it up with an impressive display at the European Under 20 championships. The growth of this side is as much a reason to fancy them as anything else.
Having reached the cup final last year and always looked capable of hanging with anyone, GCD Swords Thunder come into this season with the bulk of the core that impressed last year. The north Dublin side could well challenge for league honours and should be a nasty draw for anyone in the cup. The big question is how they reintegrate Conor Gallagher into their line-up. The Ireland international centre will likely be used off the bench to spell for Dan Nelms but his more power focused game (read: This dude is huge) is going to be a big change of pace from the former Davidson man.
Two other Dublin clubs, UCD Marian and Pyrobel Killester, probably won’t make the final shake-up to decide the title but both will fancy their cup chances and making the end of season playoffs. UCD Marian have brought in Mike Garrow as their import. Previously at Thunder, he will likely fit better into a clear starting role there than in his unusual spot role for Nelms where the Swords side had to rejig its line-up by switching in a 3 for 5. The most dangerous aspect of Killester’s game is their organisation. Against Templeogue in last year’s cup semi finals they showed this side of their game at its finest, finding ways to frustrate a taller and largely younger side for most of the 40 minutes before finally succumbing at the end.
While Éanna and Moycullen will both look to build on their returns to the top flight last year and DCU Saints, Belfast Star and UL Eagles will likewise be confident of improving on how they finished, all eyes outside the top end of the table however will be on the two new arrivals to the Premier League…wait no that’s Superleague.
Right, before we get to the expansion sides. The top league in Ireland was known for a long time as the Superleague. Two years ago it was rebranded as the Premier League. Essentially everyone kept calling it the Superleague and it’s the name the casual observer knows. This year Basketball Ireland formally switched back and everyone seems fine with it, including this corner.
Two new clubs join the league this year. Kubs, they spell it all caps but our style guide doesn’t do all-caps because journalism, are another Dublin club based in Raheny and bring the total number of clubs from the capital in the top flight to 7. Having half of the clubs in the capital isn’t ideal but Kubs are well placed to make a shot at being relevant at this level.
The more interesting arrival is Tralee Warriors, a collaboration between two clubs in the Co. Kerry town (Imperials and St Brendan’s). They bring one of the biggest names in Irish sport to the Superleague in Kieran Donaghy, a legend in Gaelic football who is used to being the tallest guy on the field in that sport. At 6’5″, he’s not going to tower over opponents to the same degree in this league but his name and strong history in basketball should help arouse attention for the club early.
More importantly, it’s a top flight team back in Kerry which is a traditional strong area for hoops on the island. Getting a team back there is big, if they can hold their own and compete it will be better. Heartlands like Mayo and, to a lesser degree, Sligo are also still on the periphery of the mainstream right now but a regional town making a mark here would be a big help.
The biggest upside of the expansion is the league becomes less of a sprint. The season now goes from 18 to 22. That’s a bit more breathing room and if the standard holds it will help a heap. There are still back to back weekends which seem, even allowing for the three cup weekends and two playoff weekends, seems a touch off as there really is no need to compress the season such particularly with the bulk of players being amateur.
The uncertainty is the biggest appeal of the season ahead. Due to scheduling constraints on this site, a fancy way of saying I’m going on holiday for almost all of October and then working in Portugal for a week in November, after week 1 it will be week 7 or 8 before I get to watch in person. Fortunately, once I’m back BiE should be able to stream a few games this year. In case you were wondering our negotiations over streaming usually involve me calling someone in the home club or Basketball Ireland and asking if I can stream a game. They say yes or no, usually the former, and hopefully the wifi/4G holds up enough for us to broadcast.