Despite being knocked out in the quarterfinals by Croatia and relegated to the playoffs for fifth to eighth the Ukrainian national basketball team has made history. It notched up a historic top-six finish at EuroBasket 2013 with a win over the Italian side and qualified for its first-ever FIBA World Cup. While the senior team has broken all performance records, the junior team, while knocking out a couple of solid performances, didn’t quite make the grade, and makes one wonder about the future of the sport in Ukraine.
It was with this in mind, I caught up with the director of the championship Markiyan Lubkivskiy, and one of the U16 team’s star performers, defender Vitaliy Zotov to find out their views on the Ukrainian performances, and what they hope will happen once the youngsters join the ranks for the seniors in a year or two when the senior Eurobasket Championships come to town in 2015.
Markiyan Lubkivskiy, Director of Eurobasket 2015
Looking back on Eurobasket 2013 U16, what are your main impressions?
The one thing that really caught my attention was the spirit in which the championship was played – uncompromising and hard fought. I guess this was mostly due to youthful enthusiasm as all the players are under 16.
Regarding the hosting of the championships, which aspects are you proud of and which could have gone better?
Everything went smoothly, and I think we coped admirably with any issues that arose. I don’t really want to discuss any of the aspects that need to be revised, except for one: the fans. They were few in number and somewhat lacking in any kind of fanaticism. It was difficult to even get those that did come to the matches to come on time. Also, I have to admit that the level of service provided to the visiting teams should have been higher. We will make sure it is when we host Eurobasket 2015.
The Ukrainian team only managed 10th place. Why do you think this is?
I don’t think 10th is bad at all. The team has potential and this championship has given the players great experience that they can take forward to the under 18s and the seniors. The level of basketball in Europe is very high, and there are seven or eight teams that are very good. I would say a perfect result for us would not be top three, but top seven. Spain, Serbia, Croatia, Greece and Turkey are more powerful than Ukraine.
If you were the coach, what would you do differently?
Maybe, I would choose stronger and taller players. There were six or seven players in the Croatian team over two meters in height. I would concentrate more on height and strength during the selection process, then focus on physical training, making sure every team member was at his peak.
Which Ukrainian player would you pick as a star of the future?
Svyatoslav Mykhalyuk was one of the best forwards of the tournament, and in my opinion is without rival at this level. Also I like how Marchenko played, and if Berozkin remains diligent he will become a very good player.
Which team were you supporting?
Ukraine, of course! But I also like the two Balkan teams – Croatia and Serbia.
What chance do you think the senior team has of winning Eurobasket 2015 here in Kyiv?
I fully support the idea that the host country should aim for a medal position at least. There are three components we will need to make sure are in place come 2015: infrastructure, organisation and, most importantly, physical readiness of the team. The first two will ensure a successful tournament, and I am confident the last one would result in a great position for the home team. But it’s very important that the top players stay and play here in Ukraine, and don’t move to Europe or the US.
Do you think we are ready for it?
Ukraine is getting ready. It will be ready come 2015.
Vitaliy Zotov, BC Donetsk
How do you feel now your first Eurobasket is complete?
The experience is amazing. Everything went smoothly and the organisation was excellent. There were a lot of very strong teams at this championship and it was a wonderful experience for us to play against them as you only get better by playing against strong opponents.
After having this experience do you want to keep playing in Ukraine, or is the NBA calling?
I like playing basketball in Europe as I really like the way the game is played here. The NBA is of course appealing, and beautifully organised, but in my opinion, European basketball is the “smart game” and I like it.
You won the Most Valuable Player in the EuropeanYouth Basketball League: how did you feel upon recieving this accolade?
Of course it’s great to win an award and to be recognised for doing a good job, but I think an individual can only win such a title if the whole team plays well. There are five people on the court, and if one wins an award, the whole team has a share in it.
What are your thoughts about Ukrainian basketball in general?
It is becoming better very quickly. If our local players got to spend as much time on court as the imported players, then this improvement would be even more rapid and I believe we could be fielding a force to be reckoned with throughout the world.
by Vadym Mishkoriz