Credit: FIBA
Credit FIBA

Greece, Lithuania, Serbia, Croatia. What do all these European countries have in common? Well, for starters, they used to have very strong basketball national teams. Olympic Games, EuroBaskets, World Cups would have been unthinkable without them.

Points this season

49%
87,3
Points made: 87,3
Accuracy: 48,9%
Place in standings: 6
Record max: 105
Record min: 72
Best scorer: Giannoulis Larentzakis

But it's all in the past now. The upcoming Tokyo Olympics will take place in their absence. Is it another sign of decadence? Does it mean that those countries don't produce good players anymore? Was it a matter of bad timing, or did they fall victim to an unjust qualifying system designed to elevate the teams with the best chemistry?

Following the recent FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, BasketNews is starting a series of articles devoted to national teams that used to be powerhouses in Europe and worldwide, but have lost their grip lately, stumbling along the way in consecutive international competitions.

First, we will take a look at Greece, a team that hasn't made it to the semi-finals of any major tournament since 2009 when they won bronze at the EuroBasket in Poland.

Although their mission was not accomplished in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament held in Victoria, Greek basketball was provided with a good opportunity to benefit from the trip to Canada. Rick Pitino introduced some new elements and despite the crushing defeat to the Czech Republic, there are some lessons to be learned for a side that failed to qualify for the Olympics for a third consecutive time.

Pitino spoke at the post-game press conference, making clear that his pro-bono cooperation with the Greek national team had come to an end. "There’s no future for me. I am here as the ex-coach and friend of PG (Giorgos Papagiannis). Ι am no longer the national coach of Greece. This is a one-stint for me. It’s something that takes a lot of my time. It took six weeks and I still have a team back home," the Hall of Fame coach explained.

Very few expected that a decimated Greek team would be able to get the ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. Nonetheless, their performance during the first three games was rather encouraging. Even the harshest critics of Rick Pitino acknowledged that his version of Greece had gone far away from the principles that held sway for a long time in the Mediterranean country's basketball philosophy.

Pitino vividly promoted quick pace, transition game, 3-point attempts on any given occasion, and, of course, deflections. His double stint with Panathinaikos had familiarized him with the advantages and drawbacks of the "Greek school" and although he had to teach an old dog new tricks, "principles and style were learned and the future is bright," as he posted to Twitter after Greece's elimination.

One week before the FIBA OQT, Pitino said that the Greek style of basketball would make his team lose by 30. The Czech Republic won by 25 and could easily have ended up with a much larger lead. Slovenia scored 96 in Kaunas, Italy dropped 102 in Belgrade, the Czechs stopped at 97 against Greece. Basketball is not just about defense and taking advantage of mismatches. It's more about executing at full speed and from a long distance, in addition to imposing skills, size, and length on one's opponent. The Czechs really bullied Greece with Vesely, Auda, and Balvin and when a perimeter shot was needed, Satoransky and Bohacik didn't hesitate one bit.

Apart from the many problems concerning injuries and absences, the Greek NT was also a team that's pretty much left on its own. "In Greece, they don’t even know who is in charge of the federation yet", in Pitino's words. That's true. The Greek federation still has a temporary board, in view of the elections to take place on September 12. That's why Greece was probably the only team competing in the OQTs with no support from the sport's national governing body. Pitino has joked a lot about "the federation wanting to save money" referring to the travel ordeal that the team had to go through in order to get to Canada.

Credit FIBA Media

His personality and charisma definitely tied the group together. However, as he noted, player development in Greece has been slow and inefficient for years. No young and talented players are coming out and, given the age of some of their core players like Printezis (36), Calathes (32), Papanikolaou, and Sloukas (31), the future doesn't look bright. "We accomplished a lot in this run and a lot has to improve in Greece in the development stages of young players. So they become Papagiannis or Spanoulis down the road. There is a lot who that to be developed", Pitino said in the post-game presser.

As for himself? He is back in New York to prepare for the next season with Iona and recruit new players. At the team dinner on Sunday, he stood up for his farewell speech which was emotionally charged: "You're a real team. That was what I wanted us to achieve and I was pleased to watch it happen. You fought together, you laughed together, you were sad together, you did everything as a team. You are all very good players, starting with our two captains (Calathes and Sloukas) and going all the way to the younger ones. You are a group of players who all have room to get better."

He then went on to confess that he might not have been able to join them had they qualified for Tokyo: "Even if we had managed to qualify for the Olympics, I don't know if I could've made it there. The problem with my hip was getting worse and worse and I was really suffering. It was a big dream of mine, of course, but this effort was made in order for you to go there. We didn't make it, but I'm proud to have met you. I worked with an excellent staff of people and I will always think highly of you. In August, I will be in Greece with my team, Iona, for a series of friendly games. I won't be your coach anymore, so I wish we could go out and have a beer", Pitino told the Greek players, receiving everyone's applause.

Nick Calathes, one of the captains, confirmed that he had a great time playing for the national team in what might have been his last tournament.

Whether the 68-year-old Hall-of-Famer, who completed his tenure, will continue to have an affiliation with Greek basketball remains to be seen. Not by taking over a team or being the head coach of the national team, but by instilling his know-how of college basketball and player development. "There are a lot of terrific Greek coaches that can carry on what we were trying to build this week and certainly I am there to help them in any way,",he reminded. After all, in his interview with BasketNews.com, he revealed that he has looked into the ownership of certain European teams and Greece would be the first place he'd choose.

Now, the Greek NT has less than five months to prepare for their next obligations. The squad has already qualified for EuroBasket 2022 (they will face Italy, Croatia, Ukraine, Great Britain, Estonia in Milan for the group stage), but at the end of November 2021, they will have to embark on the 2023 World Cup qualifiers. Although the exact dates have not been set, the first "window", which includes two games, will take place between the 22 and 30 of November.

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