It was quite the change from the adventure around Spain but BiE’s Emmet Ryan felt right at his alma mater for pre-season action in the Irish men’s Premier League.
There were, at best, 40 people in the bleachers. It was a far cry from the hordes in Palacio de los Desportes for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup final barely a week earlier. The smell and the squeak was all that mattered. University College Dublin’s (UCD) over the top new sport and student centre, a freakish superstructure combining two buildings that stood 20 metres apart, was home for the Harry Boland Cup. In the space in between they managed to lob in a cinema and finally re-built a bar on campus. Having once been home to three, there was a time in recent years when you couldn’t buy a beer in UCD. Unlike Spain, I was solely here for basketball not beer.
The squeak of shoes was loud from the building’s entrance. Left Bank Kilkenny were taking on DCU Saints in the first game of Saturday’s quadruple header. Kilkenny were the lone non top-flight side in the competition and they had the unfortunate honour of playing twice in a day. They fell by 6 to the Saints, and had to come back out a couple of hours later to take on hosts UCD Marian.
When there are so few people there, and most of the crowd are players between games, you can’t avoid the stench of sweat. Stale and dank but with a little help from the surroundings. Everybody calls where they play a gym, UCD’s home court is literally surrounded by one. In the rafters above the floor there were students and locals working treadmills and rowing machines as the best ballers in Ireland got ready for the regular season.
The Irish league is mostly amateur, everybody has a pro but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lack of movement outside of the paid ranks. Templeogue BC, essentially fodder a year ago, have tooled up for a big run in 2014/15. A new head coach in Mark Keenan, one of the most decorated in the Irish ranks, and former Irish internationals Jason Killeen and Conor Grace have joined the ranks. Grace has enjoyed a globetrotting career, including a season in Italy’s top flight, wasn’t involved in the weekend’s action but his new club performed alright without him.
Killeen, now a basketball development officer with Basketball Ireland, was forcing things in Templeogue’s win over Belfast Star. The lone Northern team in the league looks a touch weaker this season, not helped by losing point guard Paul Dick to a pro deal in Germany. Templeogue play big but with under-sized point guards in Baolach Morrison and Stephen Fagan. Keenan is more than used to dealing with short 1s, he was one when he played, and the duo brought necessary touch of pace to the offence as they cruised to a win.
The player to watch on the weekend, mainly because I accidentally ran into a buddy of his in Spain, was UCD’s new signing Preston Ross. Formerly of Western Carolina in Division I before switching to Winston Salem-State in D-II, Ross is the lone pro in UCD’s line-up this season. Ross has the tools, that’s never the problem with a pro coming to Ireland. The issue is how few players make the move over but don’t find a better contract the following season.
Much of that comes down to the types of players attracted to this league. They are used to being surrounded by better ballers, only getting limited minutes on the floor in their college days and never having to be the man. In Ireland, if you’re the American you are the man and you have to be from day one. Ross shone when the game came to him, shooting with confidence, getting physical in the post, and defending well. Where he needs to work is so horribly old-school; his aggression.
The one piece of advice I’d give to any rookie pro hitting this league is to think they’re Michael Jordan. Not so much the talent as the inhuman obsession. They need to bring the game to them not wait for plays to develop. Hunt and attack even when, back in college, it would seem out of step with what you’re used to. If you wanted to get a better contract in a better league, you need to attack like a maniac in this one. Ross has time and he knows he needs to up the aggression. It’s not easy, four years of getting used to doing his job followed by learning another system is hard work. To keep ensuring it’s work, he’s got to play with that near selfish bite. In UCD he has a team where he should enjoy that freedom, they lack size but have plenty of shooting which is pretty much ideal for a pro here looking to stand out. Ross did his job and UCD cruised past Kilkenny to face Swords in Sunday’s final.
Templeogue took care of DCU, another team suffering from key absences this season, in the third place game with little worry. Saints rallied to start the fourth but one Templeogue stepped on the gas it was over in a hurry. That and they had Lorcan Murphy do this.
The pace in the final was insane. The 27-21 first frame went the way of the hosts but neither they nor visiting Swords Thunder expected that kind of a start. The Thunder have moved up to the top flight and look to have the tools to hang around and possibly make a cup run. The tone of this one was disturbingly repetitive. UCD would move into a double digit lead, Swords would reel them in, and then UCD would stretch it out again. Ross was having to work a bit more in the post, facing a bit more physicality and pressure than from Kilkenny, but he was finding room and getting smarter. It didn’t hurt that threes kept pouring in from his team mates.
In the end it came down to the final possession. UCD Marian’s Daniel James had broken the tie by going 1 of 2 from the line but Swords managed to get in two shots to try and win it before the final horn came. The home side had the W, a 3-0 weekend (including a win over DCU on Friday) and a trophy. The real business gets under way next month, and the likes of Ross knows that’s when their season-long job interview really starts.
Check out all of our pics from the Harry Boland Cup on Facebook.