SPORTS

Quest for a medal in Japan

Greece’s basketball team is a serious medal contender in the FIBA World Championship 2006 which begins tomorrow in Japan. As the recent friendlies confirmed, winning the 2005 European Championship was no fluke. Coach Panayiotis Yiannakis, who himself played in three World Championships (in 1986, 1990 and 1994), has molded a team of 12 almost equal players and has infused them with his own qualities as a player, notably his fighting spirit and his tenacity (but fortunately, not his tendency to try too many three-point shots). Greece has never won a medal in the Worlds: it was 10th in 1986, its first appearance ever, sixth in 1990, and fourth in 1994 and 1998. It failed to qualify for the previous Worlds, in 2002, due to its dismal performance at the 2001 European championship. Yiannakis was a rookie coach back in 1998 when Greece was the host of that championship. The absence of NBA stars that year, due to the team owners’ lockout, had raised expectations and fourth place was seen as a failure. Yiannakis, already criticized as the recipient of favoritism for getting the job, was widely panned. His second stint with the national team has been very different. He has already proven himself as a coach with first-division Maroussi. He has the respect of players who grew up admiring him and, in many cases, were inspired by him to turn to basketball. He has shed his rough edges and, contrary to some of his predecessors, he does not believe he has to act like a drill sergeant in a boot camp to maintain discipline. Most importantly, he has created a team on which every one of the 12 players can be a starter, yet they have all accepted the fact that they may be used as role players. The only visible weakness on this team is a lack of a consistent outside shooter. In fact, the best outside threat may be 2.09-meter (6-foot-10) Costas Tsartsaris, who plays at either power position, forward or center. If Greece cannot rely on its sharpshooters to win games, the way Lithuania does for example, it has plenty of other options. First of all, its tough defense can force opponents into errors and can generate fast-breaks. The team gets many points that way, although there is always the danger of players getting overenthusiastic and turning the ball over when trying to make a flashy move. If opposing teams adopt a man-to-man defense, Greece will have a field day. Its five guards on the roster (Dimitris Diamantidis, Nikos Hadzivrettas, Theodoros Papaloukas, Vassilis Spanoulis and Nikos Zissis) are tall for their position and can post up an opponent or slash to the basket easily. The forwards and centers can also do that using either finesse (Tsartsaris, Lazaros Papadopoulos, Michalis Kakiouzis), brute force (Sophocles Schortsanitis) or both (Dimos Dikoudis). Team captain Kakiouzis, despite being «only» 2.06-meters (6’9») tall, is one of the best offensive rebounders in Europe. Against a zone, things will be a more difficult and will depend on the team’s ability to pass the ball to Papadopoulos or hustle for the offensive rebounds in case the outside shots miss. Greece’s schedule opens tomorrow with Qatar, its group’s easiest opponent. It then plays Lithuania on Sunday, Australia on Tuesday, Brazil on Wednesday and Turkey on Thursday. Except for Qatar, all the others are capable of putting up a stiff fight, although Turkey and Lithuania are missing a few players. The top four in Greece’s Group C advance to the Round of 16, where they will play elimination matches with the top four in Group D (China, Italy, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Slovenia and the US) – the first of each group with the fourth in the other, and the second with the third.