MK LIONS begin their pursuit of British Basketball League success on Saturday night, hoping to put right the wrongs of last season and return to their glory days of three years ago.
The city side travel to local rivals Leicester Riders in a BBL Trophy tie before hosting the same side six days later, and the fixtures are likely to determine which side will progress through the three-team group stage and to the semi-finals, with Division One side London Leopards unlikely to cause either side much trouble.
And for Lions a winning start to the season is essential after making early exits from both the Trophy and Cup last year. A dreadful season was then compounded as a couple of disastrous runs– including a seven game losing streak in early 2011 – saw them finish the Championship campaign in 10th place with a record of 13 wins and 20 defeats.
That marked a new low for Lions after a couple of seasons of decline following their memorable 2007/08 season which saw them win the BBL Cup, finish 4th in the Championship and reach the end of season play-off final, with Vince Macaulay picking up the Coach of the Year award to boot.
However, Lions weren’t able to build on that fantastic success and a ninth place finish followed in 2008/09. Still under the leadership of chief executive and coach Macaulay, Lions recovered the following season to end in seventh place and enjoy good runs in both the Cup and Trophy, but deciding to focus his attentions on the club’s off-court dramas, Macaulay stepped down in 2010 and gave veteran player Mike New his big break.
New’s first year at the helm didn’t go to plan – not helped by Lions starting the season effectively homeless after a deal to play games at thecentre:mk fell through after only a few months.
The club were forced to begin last season at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Aylesbury, but now settled into their new permanent home of the Lions Arena in Winterhill, Macaulay believes the club can now look to the future and once again become a major force in British basketball.
“What we must do this season is make the play-offs and reach at least one final,” he said. “We have a young squad that’s very athletic and very skilful and we know that if it was a race track we’d kill everyone, but it isn’t and we need to plan accordingly.
“It’s absolutely vital that we start the season well and we’ve told the players that much at length. We know Leicester will be gunning for us so the players need to know what to expect. We have an idea of what they’d like to do to us and we know what we’d like to do to them.”
Lions have a young squad with several players who have little BBL experience, but they do have one of the biggest – not in terms of number, but in terms of height on the floor.
And Macaulay says that will be an advantage against Leicester, with Lions set to meet the east Midlands side three times in the first month of the season after also drawing them away in the first round of the Cup.
“We won the last couple of games against them last season and we know exactly what to expect,” he said. “We took the team to go and watch them play a friendly game last week and we think we can beat them. They have the smallest gym in the country and it makes for an intimidating atmosphere, so we’ll take any kind of win and then finish the job off here a week later.”
The return of both Stefan Gill and Demarius Bolds to the squad has certainly helped to raise spirits at the Lions Arena, while new recruit Nuno Pedroso could also prove a shrewd bit of business.
And Macaulay thinks his side have the ability to be a dark horse in the Championship this season, targeting Newcastle Eagles, Sheffield Sharks and Plymouth Raiders as the teams to beat, as well as Mersey Tigers who won everything but the Cup last term. That was won by Sheffield.
“We’ve done our research and we know what other teams are doing,” he said. “Not everyone has their squad completely together yet – but we do and we’re training hard. Newcastle will always be a threat, Sheffield have some very good players and Plymouth have probably spent more money than anyone else, so we’ll have to see if that works out.”
Lions’ eventual move to a converted warehouse in Winterhill came after more than 12 months of uncertainty over where the club would be based in the long-term after it became clear that their proposed new home of the arena next door to stadium:mk was no longer a viable option. However, Macaulay insists all’s well that ends well on that front, and that the club is probably better off in the city centre.
“I think we now belong to Milton Keynes rather than a part of the city because of where we were down at Bletchley Leisure Centre,” he said.
“Building on our success of 2008 didn’t happen for a number of reasons, not least the hold-ups with the arena.
“I wanted to take a Championship winning team there, but that whole situation damaged us and we couldn’t keep the squad together. Now we’re rebuilding though and we can look to the future with confidence.”