London Lions proving they and British basketball belong with historic run in Europe

London Lions proving they and British basketball belong with historic run in Europe

Ambitions of continued betterment take historic steps this week as the Lions become the first BBL team to compete in the second round of the FIBA Europe Cup.

Vince Macaulay's side begin their Group L campaign on the road against Turkish top-flight team Bahcesehir Koleji S.K. on Wednesday.

A Lions pursuit, a Lions landmark, a Lions achievement is, too, a victory for their domestic rivals, on behalf of whom the capital's franchise are more-than-willing flag-bearers in appreciation of a mutual wider goal.

"It's incredibly special, we've always been battling against the way British teams are perceived in European competition, and not being able to back it up even though we've always felt there was a way of putting a roster together that would be competitive," head coach Vince Macaulay told Sky Sports.

"To now be able to go out and there and not only get the win but actually beat teams and win a bunch of games and come through the group is very satisfying."

The Leicester Riders were the first BBL team to challenge in Europe in more than 11 years in 2018-2019 when they were knocked out of the Champions League qualifiers by Bakken Bears of Denmark before dropping into the Europe Cup, during which they were winless through six games.

The Guildford Heat had been the last club to compete across the continent in 2007-2008, long gone were the days that saw six teams involved in Europe during the 1995-1996 campaign. The hope this time being that Lions success comes as part of a stable upward trajectory.

"In terms of British basketball as a whole we've got individual British players who have gone on to be very successful in Europe, we've had individual American players who nobody else has wanted and they've come to the BBL and gone onto better leagues and performed really well in better leagues. There have been pockets of stuff that have been very good in what we do in the BBL.

"The issues are being able to put a whole group of things together, for instance, solve the facility issues so we can practice when we want, solve the quality import issue and get the best players in, solve the 'bring British players home' issue and have the best British players, Justin Robinson, Jordan Williams, these guys could easily be playing in Europe.

"Bringing those things together is a win for us, but to actually show the rest of the British teams, I look around at Newcastle, Manchester and Leicester, they could easily be winners in this competition."

The Lions, who were beaten 89-62 by Italian club Treviso in the Champions League qualifiers, cruised to a 5-1 record in their Europe Cup first-round group having recorded the fourth-best points difference out of the 16 teams to advance to the next phase.

Within that came 19-point blowout performances against both Groningen of the Netherlands and Kapfenburg of Austria, as well as a 91-81 win over German group winners Bayreuth, who hit back in a 97-78 victory in November.

"For the last few years the perception of the British league, people have talked down on it and the league is much better than people give it credit for," said Lions captain and two-time BBL MVP Justin Robinson. "Sometimes it's hard to shake a label or a reputation but I think us as a team have definitely come out and shown we belong.

"In our group we weren't just winning we were blowing teams out so we showed we can compete and we do have the talent and that teams have got to take us seriously.

"The fact that we're doing so well and that word is getting out there, I definitely think it shifts the attention over to the UK and makes people start to come up with that conversation of 'what's going on in the BBL? Are there other teams that can compete?". I think moving forward they know we belong."

Standing in the way of London and the quarter-finals beyond Bahcesehir Koleji is Russia's Avtodor and Denmark's Bakken, neither of which will be taking their UK opponents for granted in the wake of their opening round statement.

"The team from Austria and the team from Holland were completely shocked at how easily we took them out and then the biggest thing was we played the team from the Germany who were spitting feathers when we thumped them at our place," added Macaulay.

"It was like 'hold on a minute, these guys mean business', what that's going to mean against the much bigger teams from Turkey, Russia, who knows? They may still take us lightly, let's hope they do because by the time they wake up they'll see our heels in the distance."

As one of the longest-serving players at the club Robinson has been witness to the culmination of hard work across the board in supporting London's ascent over recent years.

Since his arrival the Lions have secured BBL Championship, BBL Cup and BBL Trophy titles as well as second place in the league on two occasions, two runners-up finishes in the play-offs and one apiece in the Cup and Trophy.

The Brixton-born guard has plied his trade in Cyprus, Ukraine, Sweden, Hungary, Greece and France, but there is something that little bit sweeter about leading his hometown club.

"It's always a great thing to be a part of history, and I think for me being a guy from London doing it in London, especially with last year when we had people doubting us and saying we didn't belong, I think it's a special feeling to come back this year and prove everybody wrong really," he said. "I think we've shocked a lot of teams around Europe.

"I got here in 2017 so I've been here when things weren't as great as they are now, I've seen the progression of the club, before last year Vince Macaulay was making miracles happen doing about 10 different jobs and somehow someway he kept the club afloat and found a way to find the right guys and have success. To see where it's come from to where it is now is a proud feeling to know I'm one of the longest standing guys and been part of this journey."

The Lions strengthened their roster in the summer in view of their European exploits, Macaulay admitting there is 'no question' this is as strong a group of players as he has ever worked with.

"Marquis Teague was a first-round draft pick for the Chicago Bulls, Julian Washburn has NBA experience, Kylor Kelley is one of the most highly-anticipated development players in the NBA at seven foot, the way he runs the floor like a gazelle I have never seen, and then Isaiah Reese has been on the staff of the Golden State Warriors," he said.

"And then you complement that with the British players we've got, we've got a nice Lithuanian Aurimas Majauskas who lives and breathes basketball, we've got a really really tough group."

Reese has starred for the Lions in Europe and enters the second round ranked seventh with 17 points per game having also averaged a fifth-most 6.3 assists. Dirk Williams meanwhile leads the team with a second-most 22.5 points per game in the BBL Championship followed by Reese's 17.3, and Jordan Williams is currently putting up a tied-fourth-most 6.8 rebounds in addition to a fifth-most 8.5 rebounds per outing.

Besides both talent and depth, the Lions also offer the grit necessary to overseas competition.

"All of them we know quite well, we've been over to play the Bears from Denmark in preseason, the team from Turkey we know of and we've watched them, the team from Russia we've watched in this competition," Macaulay said of his side's opponents.

"I think the biggest thing with those ones is going to be the travel and the hostile environment when we get there and dealing with the way the game is refereed, it's a lot more physical out there. These are top level guys, guys with NBA experience, we aren't scared about going there and actually trying to bully them."

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