Ukraine and The Czar

It is opening day of the FIBA European Championship in Klaipeda, Lithuania. The Ukraine National Team has had 42 practices, and we’ve played about a dozen exhibition games leading up to this point.

Having made their last EuroBasket appearance in 2005, this is an opportunity for our young men to start laying the foundation for the Ukrainian Basketball Federation, which is working to build up the image of their program. Remember, the Ukraine is a very young country that gained its independence only 20 years ago. It has yet to establish itself as a basketball super power in Europe. But that is the goal of the Federation President Sasha Volkov – to get people to talk about the Ukraine the same way they talk about perennial power houses like Spain, Greece, Russia, Serbia and Turkey.

EuroBasket 2011 is the beginning of this process for our team. It is a very grueling tournament from the standpoint that you must play five games in six nights to determine who qualifies for Round 2. Teams with great depth stand a better chance of doing well in this type of fast-paced tournament. We will have to call upon players 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 to produce for us and to influence in the outcome of each game when the fatigue factor and personal fouls take their toll on our starters.

Preparing for this tournament has been challenging. You have to adapt your coaching style and coaching philosophy to the rules that are in place in Europe, which differ from NBA rules. For example total zone defense is permitted in Europe. Not only are the rules different, but certain strategies may simply not be effective here because of how they play, what they run and how they defend. It’s a much more physical game here. Probably half the screens that they set would be illegal in the NBA because of players moving when they set the screens and because hand-checking is allowed. So those types of things force you to make adjustments.

Training for the European Championship requires extreme concentration by the players because so much is being thrown at them over a very short period of time. And they also have to gel very quickly. Fortunately, when you live in the same hotel, split rooms and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner together, it expedites the bonding process. We’re practicing so much and are with each other so much that it helps bring the team together.

At this point every coach would probably say the same thing: Your team needs to be concerned about what they have to do to win rather than paying too much attention to or worrying about what the other team is doing. You’ve got basics on defense that you’ve put into place from day one. You make adjustments along the way and show the players more than one way to handle certain situations. That’s where in-game coaching becomes important. You might start out with one approach, but must make adjustments if your strategy is not effective. And substitutions become critical when you wind up with bad matchups. All of that goes on, but your basic philosophy from Day 1 of training camp has to take over, particularly when you’re facing five games in six days. Though the players are taught what to expect from other teams via walk-throughs, scouting reports and video sessions, it is not possible for them to remember everything. They will hopefully retain a good part of it, but a lot of it comes down to playing the game the way you are taught during training camp and in exhibition games, reading plays and reacting to them accordingly.

Photos courtesy of Oleksiy Naumov from the Ukrainian Basketball Federation.

We open up against Russia at 9:00 PM tonight (local time) at the brand new Svyturio Arena (Lighthouse Arena). Russia is one of the highest ranked teams in this tournament and features a number of NBA players on their roster. They have a very successful coach in David Blatt, who grew up in Boston, MA and played college basketball at Princeton University. Blatt coaches Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel during the regular season and has coached the Russian National Team for a number of years, so he is very experienced in international competition.
Ukraine vs. Russia Game 1 will be available On Demand at 2:00 PM EST at http://www.fibatv.com/Europe/Live.

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