By Jeff King

The most improved team in the BBL this season? Manchester Giants without a single doubt.

Last season a Championship record of 4-29 and first round exits in both Cup and Trophy. This season?

Currently 7-7 in the Championship and in the Play-Off positions. They reached the last four of the BBL Cup before bowing out to Glasgow and then last night they took their first win over Newcastle Eagles since their return to the BBL in 2012 to reach the semi-finals of the Trophy.

Not just a win, a win on the road and by a massive 89-71 margin which would have been even greater had Eagles not hit an uncontested meaningless three on the buzzer as the Giants players started their celebrations.

All in all, an amazing night for the man at the helm, coach Danny Byrne who is in his second season with the club and has put together a really close-knit, veteran team that are playing for each other.

Vlatko Granic in action against Newcastle

“We seem to be knockout cup, trophy specialists at the moment. If someone had told me we’d have been in two semi-finals this season I’d have bitten their hands off and I wouldn’t have believed them.

“The way we bounced back after last week’s semi-final Cup defeat at Glasgow with such a short bench with the guys being up for it was fantastic. We executed the game plan exactly the way we wanted too.

“I think though for us the short bench is working for us. The less there is the more you have to pull together. You’ve got to work for each other and pull together for each other. It’s just created such great chemistry and balance for us.”

If the Giants, who continue to confound and surprise the pundits this season, are to make the final of the BBL Trophy it certainly seems as if they might have to do it the hard way. Beating Leicester 101-94 in the first round, then the Eagles last night with potential semi-final opponents in league leaders and Cup finalists London Lion lying in wait.

However, Byrne is not deterred nor worried and indeed is just enjoying the moment that his competitive and attractive side are in and enjoying the basketball they are playing.

“Last season was tough, it wasn’t my team to start with. I managed to make changes and we got better towards the end of the season but I always had an eye on this season. When I got full control of recruitment it was always going to make this season interesting and it seems to be working.”

Working seems to be an understatement at the moment! Byrne had the foresight to bring James Jones back to The BBL (7 pts, 6 rebounds; 9 assists last night) to add experience to brother Callum and Ignus Bankevics.

Add in two solid Americans in Mike McCall jnr and Torry Butler as well as the formidable and fearsome Willie Clayton who is tearing up the BBL and grabbing rebounds for fun. You can get the picture especially with X-Factor Croatian Vlatko Granic who top-scored with 26 points as
well.

“Vlatko is a bit of a superstar in the making but he stays under the radar,” added Byrne. “People are going to start scouting him and paying him a bit more attention to him. He had a slow start to the season but he’s really found his feet in The BBL and he’s doing some damage at both ends of the floor and he’s becoming a really solid BBL player.”

James Jones has brought added experience

A lot was made of the Eagles being without star forward Victor Moses but almost unnoticed for the Giants was that Callum Jones normally a 35+ minutes a game man only played a shade over 16 minutes.

“Callum twisted his ankle in the final quarter at Glasgow last week and we’ve monitored him all week. He’s not really practised all week and although he got the ok from the physio, we’ve got three games in six days with this one, one on Sunday and one on Wednesday.

“So, it was always a case of 10-15 minutes tonight hope the others could step up and then it gives us time get him ready for the league games and again it worked perfectly especially with the minutes his older brother gave us tonight.”

That older brother, as previously mentioned, is James Jones and his 7 pts, 6 rebounds and 9 assists certainly helped plug a gap left by Callum’s injury and contributed hugely to the Manchester effort.

“You can’t beat experience. The experience the guy brings, the communication and the calm. It’s a team full of veterans but you can’t beat what James brings to this team and what he can give us and that showed tonight.”

Inevitable though the conversation came around to ‘Big’ Willie Clayton. Yet another impressive double-double of 16 points, 17 rebounds with 5 blocked shots and 2 steals thrown in. He’s having quite a season.

“Willie’s a nightmare to stop and no-one’s got his number apart from Glasgow who did a great job on him in both the Cup semi-final legs. As soon as we found out Victor Moses wasn’t playing, we knew that was our and his opportunity to take advantage of that.

“He loves his job. He loves what he’s doing and always plays with a smile on his face. He really appreciates the fact that he’s got an opportunity to play professional basketball. There’s not that many that get that and he’s taking advantage of it and he’s making the most of it whilst he’s here.”

One of the biggest and best things about this Manchester revival is that big-time professional basketball has got a hold once again in a city that seems to breed basketball players. There is a thriving junior tradition in the city and it’s a bonus for British basketball that the Giants are back.

“Since Manchester came back in 2012, I think they made one play-off appearance and it went all downhill from there. Manchester is a massive city and it should be at the top fighting against the likes of Newcastle, Leicester, London Lions.

“For some reason the funding’s not been there, the sponsorship’s not been there and the poor results have been happening. But, hopefully now we can turn this around with the results that are coming in it has a knock-on effect.

“It helps us promote professional basketball in Manchester in a better way and we can re-awaken what it was like in the 90s.”

Certainly, on the evidence of last night and what has been this season, Manchester are finally back in the spotlight and big-time and are a legitimate and real threat to anyone in the BBL and the net result of that is an even stronger stand-point for British basketball.