Shifting Expectations

A year ago, Team Russia seemed quite capable of challenging Spain and other top contenders for the European crown. Today, after a turbulent summer, with a new coach and nearly half the team that captured Olympic bronze gone, it needs to reinvent itself and choose the right path at a crossroads.

In the two decades since becoming an independent nation Russia had never won an Olympic medal. The spell was broken last summer in London – under David Blatt’s leadership the team grabbed the bronze. The campaign capped the American-Israeli coach’s multi-year stint at the helm of the national team, which will be remembered as Russia’s most successful stretch under any coach: three medals in six years, including a EuroBasket gold in 2007 and a EuroBasket bronze in 2011. The magnificent effort was crowned by claiming the podium at the 2012 Olympics.

A year later, only four of the eight players who’d stepped onto O2 Arena’s floor in London to contest the third place against Argentina will be returning to wear the national team’s jersey at EuroBasket 2013. Due to various reasons, gone are Andrei Kirilenko, Viktor Khryapa, Alexander Kaun (all starters), Timofei Mozgov and Andrei Vorontsevich. Blatt is gone, too, as is – quite unexpectedly – his successor, Fotis Katsikaris. In July, the Greek tactician had to leave under unprecedented circumstances that saw Russia lose a federation president, a general manager and a head coach within three weeks. Without any doubt, those were mistimed decisions that did most of the damage to the team.

Still searching for a top-rate playmaker since John Holden retired, the Russian squad was further weakened by the absence of Sergei Bykov, who filled the role at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and EuroBasket 2011 – the Lokomotiv Kuban guard was sidelined by an Achilles tendon injury, making him the sixth absentee whose contribution in Slovenia would have been invaluable.

The absence of Russia’s major stars jeopardizes its bid to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Spain. After failing to secure a 2006 World Championship berth, Russia has been a regular fixture in all major tournaments, including two Olympics. Whether Vasily Karasyov’s squad can place in top 7 in Slovenia and seal the World Cup qualification largely depends on the outcome of its EuroBasket opener against Italy. Two other main rivals, Greece and Turkey, have had varied success in recent years, but that could change now as both teams have brought squads to Slovenia that blend vast talent and experience and aim to go all the way. A revamped Russian team will find them tough to beat, meaning the opening game could become the decider for locking up third place and a second round berth. In terms of pressure, the Italy game is definitely going to be the hardest for Karasyov’s men. A win would relieve a lot of it, and if Russia can later ambush at least one of the favorites, it could finish higher and earn some points going into the second round.

Russia is not the only one, though, experiencing roster problems. Simone Pianigiani’s hair must have gone a bit grey in recent weeks as Italy kept losing its stars due to injury or illness. Ultimately, Azzurri won’t be able to put on the floor New York Knicks’ Andrea Bargnani (pneumonia), Denver Nuggets’ Danilo Galinari (torn ACL), Montepaschi’s Daniel Hackett (Achilles tendon) and Torino’s Stefano Mancinelli (leg muscle). Such losses would be tough to absorb for any team and, according to bookmakers, Russia is favored to win the opening night clash (William Hill rates its chances at 1.57, putting Italy’s at 2.35).

In Slovenia, Russia is at a crossroads. The team that in recent years boasted arguably the strongest forward line in Europe (Kirilenko, Khryapa, Monya and Vorontsevich) and featured what Blatt labeled “a two-headed monster” in the paint (Kaun and Mozgov), today has to “rebrand” in the face of new challenges after seeing its star-studded frontcourt vanish. The major roles under the rim have been handed to CSKA Moscow’s Dmitry Sokolov and returning veteran Alexei Savrasenko of Lokomotiv Kuban, with Nizhny Novgorod power forward Semyon Antonov switching to center when necessary.

The adjustment won’t be easy, especially for Sokolov, who’s seen limited minutes in the backup role at both CSKA and the national team. Despite his last season’s strong performance, Savrasenko is long past his prime and Antonov is definitely more comfortable in his power forward role.

“Thinner” frontcourt translates to greater dependence on perimeter players and reliance on quickness, dribble penetration and outside shot. That concept will heavily depend on the quick legs of Alexei Shved and Sergei Karasyov and the hot hands of Vitaly Fridzon and Sergei Monya. The major concern, though, is the squad’s depth – the roster features three debutants in Yevgeny Valiyev, Dmitry Kulagin and Cleveland Cavs rookie Karasyov (his London total of six minutes on the floor during the entire Olympic tournament hardly counts) and apart from Monya, Shved and Fridzon – the players who mostly filled backup roles in the national team. This will limit Karasyov Sr.’s rotation options and medal contenders will undoubtedly take heed, trying to wear Russia’s squad thin.

Paradoxically, this team’s biggest advantage is the lack of high expectations – in stark contrast to previous years, no one expects it to bring back a medal. The organizational turmoil in the summer left many questioning the team’s potential and though it’s still a solid unit with a core of tough, battle-ready leaders, it is no longer one of the major favorites to claim the podium. And yet, as so many times before, unyielding character and willpower will be Russia’s main weapons. However, this time around it may take more than that to succeed.