MAHER’S EXPERIENCE IS GB TRUMP CARD

Tom Maher coached his native land to an Olympic final. And the world’s most populous country to the Asian Championship. Nudging Great Britain to the verge of international respectability might be his greatest achievement yet.

We’re not there yet, declares the Australian in typically honest mood. Hyperbole’s simply not part of the 58-year-old’s vocabulary. Hence, there are no outlandish promises ahead of GB’s coming of age party in Poland. The Eurobasket finals, the team’s first-ever major championship as a national side, are a step forward. But it is a work in progress, just another staging post on the journey which he hopes can see his current side eventually gate crash the genuine international elite.

“We’ve got to get that respect,” he declares. “With that respect, you grow your own culture, you grow your brand and you get invited to tournaments at another level. And that’s what we aim to do.”

Maher knows what it takes better than most. He took over an already-promising Australian side in 1993, pushing them towards Olympic bronze three years later before departing following the Opals’ silver in Sydney in 2000.

His subsequent season in the WNBA was a rare failure. The Washington Mystics, a consistently poor franchise, was not a happy hunting ground and he returned home, first coaching Canberra in the WNBL then assuming the helm of New Zealand. Qualifying for his third Olympics, he took the Tall Ferns to the quarter-finals in Athens, their best-ever result.

China, needing a figure to galvanise its side for the Beijing Games, sought him out. In his first year in charge, they won the Asian Games and finished 12th at the world championships. By the time he left, they were good enough to reach the Olympic semi-finals. The magician had pulled off another trick.

With automatic qualification assured, he can now look forward to a unique hat-trick of gigs as coach of the host team at international basketball’s most visible stage, come next summer in London.

Kim Butler has flourished under Maher (wooller.com)

Leading Britain to the European finals – becoming the first UK women’s team since Scotland in 1956 to qualify – by winning their group 12 months ago is, he confirms, a source of pride. “Wow! It’s a special thing,” he enthuses. “There are only so many people who get to do that and I’m truly grateful.”

The Melbourne native knew, when he accepted the job three years ago, that there were slight foundations on which to build. Uniting players from disparate backgrounds, seeking out fresh talent with a UK passport, instilling the right mindset, using his contacts to open doors, the challenges have been diverse and plentiful.

Physically, Maher says, his charges have had to adjust to the different rigours of the global game. “That doesn’t come with a couple of work outs in a gym,” he says. “It comes over a period of time.” His practices are not for the work-shy. Uniformly however, his players lavish praise on his methods.

“His tough love has really triggered a different mindset and a different mentality in the players,” states Stef Collins. “It’s about wanting more and aspiring to more and getting the most out of our preparations.”

Maximising what is at Britain’s disposal is why Maher was head-hunted by British Basketball. Jo Leedham aside, there is a dearth of star power in the GB ranks. Instead, the Aussie has gone back to basics to mould an industrious line-up which sucks in opponents with efficiency, grit and hard defence.

It won’t win too many points for style. That can come later, he acknowledges. For the Europeans, GB sit in a group which includes the Czech Republic and Belarus – both world semi-finalists last year – as well as Israel. To reach round two, the side will likely have to overcome the Israelis in what is expected to be a do-or-die final pool tie for both teams on Monday.

“That’s the reality,” Maher concedes. “The bookmakers would have us at 50-1 to beat Belarus or the Czechs. But you go and play them don’t you? You go out there and play for that 50-1 chance. We just have to do the best we can and not worry about who’s the favourite.”

That would be Belarus, who are odds-on to win the group in Bydgoszcz despite going 0-3 in a warm-up tournament in France last week. GB is 18/1 to land top spot, and 200/1 to win the tournament (Russia are favourites, just ahead of the French, the reigning champions).

Only perennial flops Israel, 20 years removed from their last win in a finals, have longer odds against them. “The bookies will be making money,” Maher laughs. There is no pressure on the newcomers to defy expectations.

“This is mid-term for us,” he underlines. “We want a rock solid brand and to be the best we can be now but we want to take that to another level at the London Olympics. We want to be a respected basketball-playing nation. You can’t avoid playing top teams.

Jo Leedham's return gives GB a totem (wooller.com)

“For us, the players have had no experience of this level, and these talents and abilities. There’s a lot of trial and error learning going on for the first time. But we’re not going to go in there and say: ‘let’s just think about Israel, this game doesn’t matter’. That’s not a good mental preparation.”

With the Olympics looming, Britain cannot afford to flame out completely in Poland. Despite an indifferent preparation, Maher believes his side will be ready by Saturday afternoon.

Beating Belarus would be an astonishing accomplishment. More important, he knows, is that GB do not get overwhelmed on their finals bow.

“If they’re a bit quicker and taller, then we have to recognise that and be able to run our stuff, and play defence the way we want to play it,” the coach states.

“We have to do a decent job with the possession game. If we lose, then we can say we just got beaten by the better team. You have to win or lose based on what you do well. We don’t want to say ‘jeez, I wish we could play that one again’.”

That’s the reality of life at the top level. Blink first and the opponent will walk on by. That Maher’s eyes are wide open to the danger may be Britain’s greatest trump card.

That there is no substitute for experience may be both his blessing and his curse.

Group B fixtures

Saturday

Belarus v Great Britain (2pm All times BST)

Czech Republic v Israel (7.30)

Sunday

Israel v Belarus (2pm)

Great Britain v Czech Republic (7.30pm)

Monday

Great Britain v Israel (2pm)

Czech Republic v Belarus (7.30)

All games live on FIBAEurope.com and BBC red button

For all the news from Poland throughout Eurobasket, follow @markbritball on Twitter.

 

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