Qualifying for Women’s EuroBasket 2021 isn’t mission accomplished, Chema Buceta insists.

A nice interim objective to be ticked off the list, the Spaniard acknowledges. Victory over Belarus on Thursday (11.30am) in the Covid-secure bubble of Riga would suffice to send the 2019 semi-finalists onwards to the showcase of another major tournament in Spain and France this June.

Even in defeat, their two wins over Poland in this group might – just – be enough.

But change is a-coming. Despite missing out on the Tokyo Olympics effectively due to one maddeningly sub-par performance against South Korea in last spring’s qualifiers, UK Sport has brought the sport back into the funding fold, largely as a consequence of the women’s endeavours.

£1.35 million (in relative terms, a meagre sum) has been allocated for expenses dating from next autumn up to the Paris Games of 2024.

Hurrah! We can plan beyond the next camp, Buceta cheers. A window to window, hand-to-mouth existence, no longer.

But it is time to plan properly ahead if the full potential is to be uncorked – finally.

“Now let’s suppose that we don’t go to EuroBasket,” he says. “Or even if we go. We need to do something in the summer with young players. We need to practice at a high level. You create a good team, not only from going to the competition.

“For example, our Under-20 team. Maybe, they play one preparation game, they go to a competition, they don’t even practice much.

“No, we need to practice at a high level. We need to develop skills that are important for international basketball. So we need to invest in practice games and things like that.

“And the talent is there. But we need to do that. And we need to be in contact with the coaches. So I think we have we have reasons to have positive glasses, and to be optimistic, but we have to put the ideas in action.”

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He had an eyewitness view of how Spain turned itself into a basketball superpower over three decades, a totem surpassed only by the mighty United States.

Coach of the women’s team for the hosts at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, the Spanish rise up the rankings has been more astounding that he could surely have dreamt of.

It was not, he cautions, from a standing start as many suppose.

“Basketball in Spain was important many years ago in the 1960s. Real Madrid was the European champion. So in basketball, that’s a big tradition of our sport. After football, the main sport in Spain is basketball. And this is something that it doesn’t happen in in UK in this moment.”

And yet there was, undeniably, an explosion post-Barcelona. Modern legends like Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro saw their compatriots on court with dream teams from around the world and simply aspired.

“Many, many players, many girls wanted to play,” Buceta, who guided La Roja to fifth place, recounts. “There were better coaches in the game. More clubs interested in women’s basketball. So I think timing is important.

“But it’s not enough, of course. I mean, you need to do things to improve. And I think it’s important to highlight the role models.

“We have great players that can be great role models, because they have been… let’s say pioneers. If you want international basketball players who have retired, or who are not playing now, like Jo Leedham or Azania Stewart or Stef Collins or Rachel Vanderwal.

“But also the current players, the ones who are in the team in the moment also. I think it’s important that they are better-known so that the young girls follow them. Because at the end, to try to imitate the role models is a key aspect to improve.

“This is why, for example, I think it’s important to organise more activities in UK: games, competitions. Apply to organise the competitions in our country, even for the young categories. For example, if we organised the (European) Under 20, or something like that, that’s a good opportunity to bring in people.

“Spain, all the time, are organising things, and also to embody the culture. Even when I was the head coach of Spain in in the late 1980s and beginning of 90s. I remember every camp that we had with the national team, we invited coaches to be there the whole week.

“I used to explain: ‘ok, this practice is going to be for that.’ Then they were observing. After the practice, they could ask about things that happened. That was not a big problem for me as a coach, because it didn’t take so much time, but for them was very interesting.”

Tucked away in his theorem is a nugget of unannounced but significant news. Collins, thwarted by injuries since that extraordinary EuroBasket of two years ago, has brought her international career to a close.

Now 38, a silent easing out the door mirrors her admirable attributes as a player who has accumulated more Great Britain caps (152) than anyone else. Never flashy, simply quietly efficient, it is no wonder that the Cardiff Archers playcaller has been immediately enlisted for Buceta’s staff in place of the departed Susana Garcia.

“She also has a coaching experience, and she understands international basketball,” he underlines.

“This is something that is very important to understand in the UK. I mean sometimes we are not enough open to international basketball. We need people to understand better what are the international standards?

“We don’t have teams in in European competitions. We don’t have so many people who understand what is the rain outside the island. And Stef Collins is a great example of a person who understands basketball at the highest level.”

It does clear some room for a fresh generation. Buceta is acutely aware of the need for constant refreshment with Shequila Joseph – and possibly late call-up Paige Robinson – in line for first caps this week.

Inclusion is not guaranteed for any of the new kids on the block. “They must play high-level defence,” he preaches.

Something which applies to his entire current roster, especially in attempting to avenge a 90-59 loss to Belarus in Manchester in November 2019 that might yet prove costly.

The mathematics were clarified a little on Wednesday when, the Belarussians lost 68-58 to Poland today.

That means if GB win by any margin in their content, they reach the finals as group winners.

The impending Olympic qualifiers, Buceta sensed at the time, were a distraction in the previous Belarus clash. Confined to barracks in recent days in Riga under FIBA’s coronavirus protocols, focus will not be an issue second time around, Buceta believes.

“The task is difficult because we have to beat Belarus and Belarus is a very good team. They had a difficult time in the last EuroBasket because they were in the same group with Russia, Belgium and Serbia. And they ended fourth – this is why they went to the draw and were in a not very good position.

“But this is a team that was in Olympic Games in Rio and in London. Top 10 in Europe.”

A lot, for UK hoops, rests on a single result. No pressure in what it could mean for the future.

Positive glasses on.

And Buceta said: “We can beat Belarus. We just need to win by one point. Because if we have three wins, we will not be first in the group – but we will, for sure, be one of the best five second teams in the in the competition.

“So winning by one point is enough. If we lose by not many points, we also have some chance, depending on the results of the other group. But our chance now is to think just about winning.”

Current group standings: 1. Great Britain (2-1), 2. Poland (1-2), 3. Belarus (1-1). Remaining games. Thursday: Belarus v GB (11.30), Sunday: Poland v Belarus (TBC)

Watch the game live on Thursday from 11.30am at mvp247.com.

Listen to the full interview with Chema Buceta and Evelyn Adebayo on the latest edition of the MVP Cast, sponsored by Total Environmental Compliance.

Download from your podcast provider or stream below.

Photos: Ahmedphotos


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