Credit: FIBA Media
Credit FIBA Media

A dominant 97-72 win over Greece in the final of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, Canada, made sure that the Czech Republic's national team was going to the Summer Olympics for the first time since the formation of the country back in 1993. As Czechoslovakia, the team last appeared in the biggest summer sporting event in 1980.

The last decade brought a whole new level of success for the Czech Republic. This wasn't a team that depended just on one or two players anymore. As time went by, they became a regular member of the continental summit. In 2015 came the breakout tournament, when they ripped Croatia apart in the Round of 16, reaching the quarter-finals for the first time as an independent nation.

It seemed that the Czech Republic was on the rise. The 7th place from that tournament was bettered by finishing 6th in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China. Only Spain, Argentina, France, Australia, and Serbia finished ahead of Czech Republic. Even the USA were left watching the backs of Ronen Ginzburg's boys.

Furthermore, the FIBA Europe Board assigned the Czech Republic as one of the four hosts of the next FIBA EuroBasket, which will certainly spark enthusiasm and capture the nation's attention towards the sport with the orange ball. Still, it goes without saying that soccer and ice hockey remain the clear frontrunners in popularity.

However, the road of the Czech team was not paved with roses: the squad coached by Ronen Ginzburg has been placed in Group A alongside perennial Olympic basketball favorites Team USA, as well as France and Iran. But if you ask Czechs, that's fine with them. The role of the underdog has been the one to suit them best. "We were getting better every game," Satoranský said after the win over Greece on Sunday. Who could contradict him?

During the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria, the Czechs performed amazingly against the favorites, whether it was home team Canada or Greece. Their national team was incredibly hardworking, the chemistry between the players worked, and - above all - their strong mental strength and character were evident in each game. In addition, the Czech Republic always managed to find an unexpected X-factor, which would surprise their opponents. Against Greece, it was Patrick Auda, as he took down everyone who stood in his way.

Free throws this season

Points made: 13,0
Accuracy: 78,8%
Place in standings: 10
Record max: 18
Record min: 10
Most made FTs: Tomas Satoransky

The core of players has been together for several years, and you can tell that these guys enjoy playing basketball together. It sounds like a cliche, but this group worked well, even if some pieces were missing because of injury, with Vojtech Hruban and Martin Kriz providing such cases in the last couple of tournaments.

The tremendous cohesion of the team was evident in the reactions of the players standing on the sidelines, next to the bench. Although Czech players are scattered all over the world, they are following each other's careers. Also, as Balvin admitted, the best part of playing pro basketball was the ability to represent your country. The experience that many of them gathered by playing difficult games at the club level has also paid dividends in the national team.

Whether it was Satoransky and Vesely, or the players who have starred with Nymburk, the country's perennial powerhouse, they never seemed to lack self-confidence. Quite the contrary. The Czech Republic have been producing attractive basketball with physical and mental resilience based on defense, speed, competitive spirit, and effective 3-point shooting.

Admittedly, the fact that the Czechs snagged their ticket to the OQT semi-final thanks to a Jason Granger misfire gave birth to some inevitable suspicions about the lack of mental readiness in a "do or die" situations. However, a glowing 103-101 overtime win against host Canada came as a reminder that nothing was to be taken for granted.

Jan Vesely was not physically ready for that tournament. Still, he did not want to refuse another call because, in all likelihood, he would not be given another chance to participate in the Olympic Games. Desire is one thing, and being in shape is another, of course. In fact, during the tournament's first three games, the 31-year-old center was the least influential player in the paint. Vesely was on the floor to basically keep opposing defenses busy, picking up rebounds with his long arms, opening up the lanes, and passing the ball on most occasions rather than scoring baskets.

More than anything, the Fenerbahce Istanbul big worked for the other two guys in the frontline: Patrick Auda and Ondrej Balvin. The 2.17 center had an excellent tournament, averaging 12 points with 58% from the field and 4 rebounds. He was versatile, and he displayed a variety of moves under the basket and the ability to cut without the ball. 

Of course, any other parameter would have been useless if Tomas Satoransky hadn't stayed on the floor for more than 35 minutes. His own decisions defined, to a large extent, the success or failure of the game plan. One of them was the winning shot in the semifinal. The Chicago Bulls guard is a pick and roll specialist and won't necessarily look at the screener's dive to find a pass, but he will execute an early offense, usually by using his excellent jump shot.

Blake Schilb was one of those cases where an American baller has become part and parcel of a European national team. He made sure he stayed where he felt most comfortable. Even at 37, he was given the room to execute, mostly behind the 3-point line, but also from mid-range.

The Czech Republic has a great generation of players with an equally great coach in Ginzburg, who understands his team's essence and knows how to tailor his tactics to the players. Ginzburg has earned recognition all over Europe by coaching teams with none or very few stars on their roster. Surprisingly, the coach, who has rarely worked with big names, gets along with both Vesely and Satoransky pretty well.

"I discovered that working with star players is easier than working with average ones," he noted. "I think that days, when the coach could be a dictator are gone. People have changed, young players have changed, it is not the same environment anymore. Like Rick Pitino said, today, to have some knowledge is not enough to be a coach. So, I am trying to build good relationships with players and respect them, but, at the same time, I will never give up on my principles on and off the court." Among those principles, by the way, is asking for advice from his players. Ginzburg is sure there are times when players see the situation much better than any coaching staff member.

"We talked in the locker room with the guys that we are probably difficult to scout for opponents. Each of us is different, but everyone can fight. Together we are a great team, and hopefully, in Tokyo, we will do as well as we did in Victoria. We're not going there just to take pictures with them. Everyone will want to show what they can do. It will be great to play against such players," Jaromir Bohacik mused.

Tokyo is a great reward for the progress that the Czech Republic men's basketball has made, and if everything clicks again, the world might be in for another treat.

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Tomas Satoransky

Tomas  Satoransky
Team: Chicago Bulls
Czech Republic
Position: SG
Age: 29
Height: 200 cm
Weight: 93 kg
Birth place: Prague, Czech Republic