Tall Blacks upbeat about OQT
Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic is optimistic on the eve of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, despite his team’s limited preparation.
The New Zealand men’s basketball team have been in Caracas, Venezuela, a couple of days now, trying to regroup after a tough travel itinerary and a winless build-up. Over the past week, they’ve come out the wrong side of games against Brazil, Greece and Nigeria as they struggled to overcome the loss of key personnel even before their journey began.
Star shooter Kirk Penney and athletic forward Tom Abercrombie both withdrew early through injury, while several others from last year’s squad are retired or unavailable. As a result, this year’s Tall Blacks have a very inexperienced look about them and very little time to remedy that situation.
“Expected is probably the best way to describe our campaign so far,” says Vucinic. “Short preparation, very tough schedule for a team with seven new members – it’s what we expected.
“When you go with a new team against powerhouses like Brazil and Greece, you can expect it’s not going to be easy, but it’s probably the best thing for us. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made.
“We’ve positive – we don’t really want to go into the tournament as big underdogs, although we may be. We still believe we can beat anyone on our day.”
After struggling to locate the basket against Brazil, the Kiwis showed some glimpses of cohesion against Greece and created plenty of open opportunities against the Africans, albeit mostly from long distance.
“We’ve lost a lot of scoring with Kirk, Tom and Corey [Webster], and we’ve struggled to replace that,” says Vucinic. “But we’ve improved and hopefully we’ll show them.
“We’ve always been a team that needs to shoot the ball well to win. We’re a three-point shooting team – the 36 we took against Nigeria were probably too many, but you have to take what the defence gives you.”
Vucinic has tried using captain Mika Vukona at Abercrombie’s vacant small forward spot, but hinted he may shift him back to his preferred power forward position and play more of a three-guard line-up.
That’s perhaps a measure of how rookies Everard Bartlett and Tai Webster have progressed in such a short time.
To qualify for the London Olympics, New Zealand must win at least three games at Caracas – their first opponents are Macedonia at 6am, Wednesday (NZ).
“We know a lot about every team in this tournament, but Macedonia especially, because we played them last year,” says Vucinic. “They’re a very good team and, incredibly for them, they made the semifinals of the European championships.”
Macedonia are dark-horse contenders in much the same way the Tall Blacks themselves were a decade ago. Their rise has been largely unheralded, but they boast some impressive playing talent, starting with naturalised American point guard Bo McCalebb, who was named in the Eurobasket tournament team.
Another is power forward Pero Antic, a member of Euroleague champions Olympiacos from Greece.
A full-strength NZ team lost to their rivals by a single point during their European tour last year and the Macedonians have had mixed results in their recent preparation, losing to Russia and Puerto Rico, but overcoming Lithuania.
The Tall Blacks will complete their pool play against Angola, starting 3.30am, Thursday (NZ).