A winning combination

Following the university’s basketball triumph, Sam Geoghegan and Daniel Keenan spoke to UCD Marian coach Fran Ryan and point-guard Conor Meany about their success

Following UCD Marian’s triumph over Killester in the National Cup two weeks ago, Coach Fran Ryan is feeling fantastic right now. Ryan explains that the team “had set out a target at the beginning of the previous season to win a national title within three years”. These are exciting times for UCD Marian and Ryan is hopeful for the future.

Ryan is a man who is on top of the world. Not surprisingly, he is ecstatic about the team’s progress in recent seasons and their success in the previous weeks, and supremely confident about the students’ continued success: “At the moment, part of that evolution is to continue improving the guys both individually and collectively.”

The coach’s words to the players with five minutes left in the final had a huge impact and Ryan explains how “we always felt that if we are about five points down with five minutes to go, the entire psychological pendulum would completely swing against them and completely for us, which is exactly what happened”.

One of the stars of UCD Marian’s Superleague National Cup run was Conor Meany. To win in their first final is a massive achievement in itself, but is made all the more remarkable when looking at the odds they faced.

At 9.5/1, press and bookies alike gave them little chance of even challenging Killester, never mind beating them. However, strong mental resolve and self-belief is obviously a trait that Meany and his teammates possess in spades, as they always believed that they could upset the odds.

“I don’t think we believed that we were as big an underdog as everyone made us out to be,” says Meany. “We’re one of the top four teams in the country so far this year, and we’ve beaten Killester pretty much once a year for the last few years.

“It wasn’t as if this was some sort of freak result. We knew we could play against the big teams, but we just had to get to the big stage to have the opportunity to play.”

The camaraderie in the squad is evident. Ryan explains that the team is very close both on and off the court. “There’s a tremendous friendship within the group. They socialise together,” Ryan notes.

While producing some big performances throughout the season, Meany admitted to feeling the nerves in the games leading up to the final, but felt calm going into the game. Former Armagh footballer Enda McNulty helped them thrive under the added pressure of TV cameras and media attention, and taught them to ‘love the battle;’ to enjoy the game by channelling the pressure into a performance. Meany took the advice to heart, and certainly looked like he enjoyed his game.

Meany is very modest when asked about his own performance: 12 points in the final, and an average of 15.6 points for the month, led to him being named January Basketball Player of the Month, alongside other individual awards. But the point-guard prefers to focus on a fantastic team performance.

“I came up with some big shots, but everybody really stepped it up, and we just played really well. It’s nice to get individual recognition, but all of us put in so much work. For James (Crowder) to get MVP in the final was great, and Fran [Ryan] getting Coach of the Month was brilliant.”

The future looks bright for UCD Marian basketball club. Ryan expects the core of the team to remain intact for the next seven years. “The average age of this team is 22; the average age of the opposition was 28-29.” Killester, the supposed powerhouse of Irish basketball, appear to be on the wane and perhaps the students can take this opportunity to become accustomed to silverware.

The club has been building towards this success for years, and Meany believes their success is in no small part due to the amalgamation of the old Marian club and UCD. Players like Conor, and his brother Niall, among others, played underage ball for Marian, while coach Fran Ryan is one of the original Marian coaches.

“Our original club, Marian, was a bit smaller, but with UCD we have people coming up from all over the country, and there are scholarships now,” says Meany. “We also wouldn’t have access to high performance equipment without UCD.”

The scholarship programme that is currently in place which was implemented by John Landy and has been, according to Ryan, “a cornerstone of what’s happened.” However, Ryan is well aware that UCD Marian’s success is related to their recruitment policy, especially of Americans. James Crowder is one such American who was arguably the most valuable member of the team throughout this season.

The camaraderie in the squad is evident. Ryan explains that the team is very close both on and off the court. “There’s a tremendous friendship within the group. They socialise together,” Ryan notes.

He felt that the experience of the final is “hugely beneficial” to the players and he begins to sing his praises of the team, “They demonstrated in the most pressurized and unexpected way that was imagined, because the pressure these guys were under going into that cup final was extreme. It was painted as David vs. Goliath.” The final did more than just lift spirits; it brought a massive psychological boost now that, in Ryan’s words, the “monkey is off our back as an organisation”.

The effects, he believes will be long-lasting as “now they know that if they put enough into something they can get the return and when they’re going into another final, it’ll be easier for them to believe that they can win it.”

The decision to amalgamate UCD and Marian nine years ago is one that has obviously developed the team immensely, an element that Ryan acknowledges as crucial. “In Marian [there’s] a tremendous skill set and history in basketball and youth programme aligned to the facilities and the support of the entire college sports system through Brian Mullins and his team.”

“Our original club, Marian, was a bit smaller,” explains Meany. “But with UCD we have people coming up from all over the country, and there are scholarships now. We also wouldn’t have access to high performance equipment without UCD.”

After such a dramatic win in the cup, many teams might take their foot off the accelerator, but Meany isn’t letting the success go to his head, and says he wants to push on with the league. They still have a good chance of making the play-offs – they currently sit in 3rd place – but need to avoid the inconsistency that has plagued them over the last few seasons.

Much like his coach, Conor Meany is reluctant to look beyond this season, such is his focus on the league, but is optimistic about the future of this young team. He was sure that they would eventually win something – the cup win was a year earlier than he had expected – and with such a sublime pool of talent and resources at their disposal, few would question his optimism.

Can they win the Superleague this year? Ryan is not as certain as before. His answer represents a quiet confidence but also a diplomatic response. He’s adamant that a playoff berth must be secured before the team can even think about winning another trophy. If the team make their way into the post-season, he feels any team can win it all, as “the doubt of who’ll win it is a great reflection of the infrastructure that’s there with a playoff structure.”

So what lies ahead for the future of Irish basketball? Ryan believes that UCD Marian winning was a “healthy thing for the sport” and “an association with the NBA would be a very healthy way of stimulating interest in basketball”. With Ryan’s experience combined with a talented group of young players coming through the ranks, the future of UCD basketball is very bright.