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Ciaran Kilkenny as point guard: How basketball has transformed Dublin's style of play

The cross-sport pollination from hoops to Gaelic football will be on show in Croke Park later today.

WHILE THE TYRONE players were on the Croke Park field coming to terms with their defeat to Cork in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final, which ended their reign as champions, Pat Spillane was in full-flow in the RTÉ studios.

Mickey Harte and captain Brian Dooher 25/9/2005 Source: ©INPHO

“Cork out-Tyroned Tyrone at Tyrone’s own game,” he said, his head shaking with delight.

“Can I just conclude by saying, at least this puts to bed one argument. Might I suggest Joe (he nods over to Joe Brolly), the team of the decade has four All-Irelands and two National Leagues.

“The second best team of the decade, Tyrone. Don’t give me anymore crap about the team of the decade being Tyrone.”

Two weeks later, Kerry beat their neighbours in the final by four points to confirm their status as the team of the noughties.

Kerry won five All-Irelands during the 2000s, compared to Tyrone’s three. The argument in Tyrone’s favour was that the Kingdom lost three major games to Mickey Harte’s men during that period – two All-Ireland finals (2005 and 2008) and an All-Ireland semi-final (2003).

Since the turn of the decade, Dublin have been the dominant force in the game, picking up the Sam Maguire on four occasions. During that time no team has put it up to them more than Mayo, who won once, drew twice and lost three times in their championship meetings.

Paul Flynn and Lee Keegan   Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Sure, Kerry and Donegal have won one final and were defeated in another, but Mayo’s consistency and relentlessness places them behind Dublin in the team of the decade arguments.

Dublin have made it to the final five times since 2010, while Mayo have done it on four occasions. They’ve faced-off in the decider three times (including the 2016 replay), with the Dubs emerging victorious by a single point in 2013 and last October.

The Dublin and Mayo dominance is typified by the warrior spirit of their young leaders Cillian O’Connor and Ciaran Kilkenny.

At just 25, O’Connor is appearing in his fifth All-Ireland final. With 3-59 to his name so far in this championship, he’s a whopping 31 points ahead of second-placed Conor McManus (2-31) in the scoring charts.

Kilkenny is a year younger but he’s fit a lifetime of experiences into his 24 years. He lost an All-Ireland minor hurling and football final in the space of two weeks in 2011, won an U21 crown a year later, spent time on the books of AFL side Hawthorn, spent a season out with a torn cruciate and played a key role in three senior All-Ireland wins.

Cillian O’Connor celebrates scoring the equalising point Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Arguably no side in the country has undergone more cultural transformations than Dublin in recent times. We had the brash side from the Pillar Caffrey years (2004 – 2008) that linked arms and marched towards the Hill before games, then the defensively sound and hard-working Pat Gilroy team (2009 – 2012) that finally ended the famine.

Jim Gavin initially introduced a free-flowing style of play that delivered glory in 2013, before Jim McGuinness’s counter-attacking Donegal brought the house crashing down in 2014. The Dublin team we now know was formed after that shock defeat.

Gavin became obsessed with breaking down the blanket defence and made a couple of key appointments to his management team for the 2015 campaign. The first was bringing in Hill 16 favourite Jason Sherlock, who lit up the 1995 All-Ireland championship as a fresh-faced teenager, to work with the Dublin forwards.

“I think it brings a freshness to it,” said Gavin at the time. “Players are used to a particular themes and concepts coming from a manager and to have a skills coach like Jason who is a deep thinker on the game and thinks outside the box.”

Jason Sherlock Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But it was Gavin’s left-field move to bring in renowned basketball coach Mark Ingle that spring that really transformed the way Dublin play football.

At the time of Ingle’s appointment, former Mayo midfielder Liam McHale predicted that he’d help Dublin break down defensive systems in Gaelic football by making the attacking half of the pitch as wide as possible to create space for their forwards.

Two and a half years later, Dublin have almost single-handily sounded the death knell for the blanket defence. The current rendition of this Dublin team is a patient attacking side built on solid defensive play.

“I’ve watched Dublin a lot,” former Irish basketball captain Tim McCarthy tells The42.

“First of all Jim Gavin has incorporated not just basketball but other sports he’s brought aspects of too. In particular the basketball influence is coming through, both in the defensive and offensive sides of the set-up. In both situations they look to be running certain formats.”

McCarthy is regarded as one of the country’s greatest-ever basketball players and won 103 caps with Ireland, including 58 as captain.

inpho_00403587 Basktball coach Mark Ingle Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In later years the Cork native made a second-coming as RTÉ’s main live commentator for basketball at the Olympic Games in London, Beijing and Athens. In 2016, McCarthy took up a coaching role with the Wexford senior footballers.

He’s well-placed to examine the similarities between both sports.

“Mark Ingle is an exceptional coach. Ingle is tactically outstanding and he’s technically brilliant,” continues McCarthy. “I’d say he’s a better technician. He’s brought into the Dublin set-up the understanding of screens, rolling off the screen and moving into space, defensive positions, he technically would do that really well.”

“My own experience with Wexford and I’ve no doubt Mark would be the same, we would be very visual as coaches. I would have used a clipboard in Wexford to draw where you want defences and offenses to go, the movements you’re trying to get them to make.

“Then we’d repeat the movements over and over and over and over night after night. That’s a very different thing from a traditional sense in the GAA.

So how exactly has Ingle influenced the way Dublin play? McCarthy breaks it down into two basic categories.

Con O'Callaghan Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Offense

“In the forward play they definitely run systems,” explains McCarthy. “The first one is they keep space. One thing great basketball teams always look for is space offensively.

“Secondly, great basketball teams would also have the patience to wait for a good shot and the best option. Dublin do both of those really well. They create space by keeping the wing and corner forwards out on the sidelines as often as possible. They have the patience then to make the movements into set areas at the appropriate times to create movement.

000e8c7f-614 Source: RTE

“Obviously you can’t set a screen as it basketball where you make physical contact, a third man tackle is no longer allowed in GAA, but they create the same movements, they cross players frequently.

“When they cross, they free up the person they want to take the shot and that’s what many GAA teams do in loop offensive situations. But what Dublin do really well is the guy who has set the screen keeps moving into space and that’s very different to most other teams.

“If you take Jack McCaffrey coming forward, when he gets the ball to Fenton and creates the space, he keeps moving into the space.

jack2.1

“That’s very clever, so the guy that sets the screen ends up in the scoring position.”

jack2.2

If he doesn’t receive a pass, he’s creates space for the forward to shoot.

jack2.3

When basketball players get into the scoring zone, they have three options. Their preferred choice is to have a shot, the second option is to pass and the final option is to take the man on.

In Gaelic football the reverse is often the case, with most forwards told to take their man on. That’s what the blanket defences aim to exploit, so a key part of Ingle’s philosophy is to for Dublin to play with their heads up and looking to create a shot at goal with good movement and fast passing.

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“When they get into the scoring zones, they look for the scorer to have the ball in those zones, to get the ball to Dean Rock or Paddy Andrews for example,” says McCarthy.

“They’ll rotate the ball around until first of all either of those players get into their scoring zones. They’re very disciplined to have the patience to get those guys into those zones.

“They’ll recycle the ball, they’ll go across the field and bring it back .When they get the ball to these guys in the scoring zones, the players first reaction is, ‘Have I a shot?’ That’s what they’re looking for all the time.

“Their second reaction is, ‘If I don’t have a shot, who has set me a screen?’ Is he a good option for the pass? And their last option is to go by the guy.

“I know Kevin McManamon is one of the guys who attacks the line very directly, but the rest of them are all looking for the shot or the pass first. They’re all so clear about their role.”

Ciaran Kilkenny Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

You may have noticed how Kilkenny’s possession statistics are through the roof in every game he plays for Dublin. The Castleknock star is essentially Dublin’s point-guard, the man who runs the offense and feeds the scorers.

Against Tyrone had had an incredible 62 possessions, which might be the highest number of times any player has touched a ball in the championship.

“An important aspect when you’re playing against blanket defences is retaining possession,” Kilkenny said about his role during the summer.”

Kilkenny, who has regularly hit the 50 possession mark this season, has been criticised in the past for his lateral play but as McCarthy explains, that’s all part of his role in this team.

“In a basketball team the point guard’s role in general is to get the ball to the scorers.

“To me Kilkenny is the point guard, because what he does is he surveys the whole situation. For the amount of possession he has, he doesn’t take a lot of shots. That doesn’t mean he can’t score, but he doesn’t score the big points.

“You’d think for somebody with so much possession in the offensive part of the field he’d be taking more shots, but what he does is find players.

“You take Rock or Andrews who have less possession, they take more shots. If you look at the point guard’s role, it’s to get the ball to the scorers. Ciaran Kilkenny in Dublin gets the ball to the scorers.”

“The basketball sense the shooting guard, scoring forward and maybe the power forward are the scores. Dublin have those equivalents in Rock, Andrews, Connolly, Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara.”

Brian Fenton, Michael Fitzsimons and Philip McMahon with Matthew Donnelly Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Defence

“Dublin incorporate aspects of both man-to-man and zonal defence in different stages of their play,” says McCarthy.

“They’ve a man to man responsibility, but in addition to that they have other players stepping away from their own man to make a zonal defence situation visible at times. There’s no doubt they have used basketball influences in how they play.

“In a zonal defence what you’re trying to do is force the opposition to take longer range shots. When Dublin go into a more zonal situation it means they’re worried about their full-back line being exposed against an exceptional full-forward line. They bring players back and force the opposition to take medium to long range shots.

“If they feel they’ve the measure of the teams they tend to stay man-to-man and just play with Cian O’Sullivan as that sole sweeper.”

Cian O'Sullivan and David Mulgrew Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In the win over Tyrone, the Red Hand’s swift counter-attack was shut down by Dublin to devastating effect. Dublin’s attacking template means they’re well-placed to prevent a fast-breakaway. The key was surrounding the Tyrone man and forcing him to go backwards.

“When you’re attacking you’ve got to stop the other team’s fast break. How you stop it is you stop the first outlet. Dublin did that against Tyrone.

“So when Tyrone won the ball back, they forced Tyrone backwards in the first outlet to slow the whole game down which gave the Dublin players time to recycle backwards into whatever line they had to be in as part of their system and ensure there was limited opportunities for fast breaks.”

Footwork is the final key to Ingle’s defence.

“He would have spent a lot of time with Dublin on their footwork. On creating space when you set a screen and how you then move out of the space. One of the things I found on my time with Wexford, GAA players have grown up in a very set way of how to play football.

“To get to the next level, you play defence with your feet and with your head. You don’t play defense with your hands. If you look at most GAA teams, they play defense with their hands. They pull and drag, where Mark Ingle’s philosophy would be that you play defence with your feet and head. Great basketball defenders and GAA defenders have that in common.”

But it’s not just the Dubs who are benefiting from jumping through hoops…

***

Aidan O’Shea celebrates at the final whistle Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He might have been injured while playing the sport during the winter with the Sligo All-Stars, but basketball has also contributed to Aidan O’Shea’s game in 2017.

McCarthy explains: “If you play Division 1 in basketball, which is just below the Super League level, you can do three things differently than people who are not playing basketball.

“Peripheral vision. If you look at Donaghy, his ability to pass the ball without looking to where its going is greater than other players. In basketball we’d teach people that you can pass the ball without looking. That’s an advantage Aidan O’Shea definitely has because of his basketball experience.

“Secondly his handpassing is better. A lot of handpassing in GAA is hand to hand, but his ability to pass the ball to people who are moving and can continue their movement without breaking stride. He has that were he didn’t pre his basketball sojourns.

“Then his footwork will be better. If you think of basketball, as long as you’re on the floor, you’re running on your toes for 85% of the time, you’re jumping for rebounds and jump shots etc.

“That’s different to GAA players who are going along on the flat of their feet for want of a better description. That gives him the ability to react quicker because he’s on his toes before the action happens. They’re the three things he’s benefited from.”

Evidence the two top football teams of this decade have taken aspects straight out of the basketball play-book.

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