Credit: BasketNews.lt/D. Lukšta
Credit BasketNews.lt/D. Lukšta

There was a constant that connected all the Olympic Qualifying tournaments: none of the teams that hosted the tournaments were able to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Not a single one. Lithuania, Croatia, Canada, and Serbia went home without that golden ticket to Tokyo.

3-pointers this season

37%
9,5
Points made: 9,5
Accuracy: 36,5%
Place in standings: 11
Record max: 12
Record min: 6
Most made 3FGs: Danilo Andjusic

BasketNews continues its series of reviews about countries with strong basketball traditions and winning history. We've already taken an in-depth look into Greece, Croatia, and Lithuania. Now it's time to discuss another Balkan powerhouse (or not) - Serbia.

As mentioned earlier, the home factor wasn't enough. It hurt every team involved but, maybe, it hurt a little bit more Serbia. The competition didn't look so strong at the beginning and because, at the end of the day, we're talking about a team that ranks fifth in the FIBA World Ranking. But even if Serbia's loss at home came a bit as a surprise, for others the writing was on the wall since before the start of the tournament.

There was excitement at first because the preliminary roster included NBA stars Nikola Jokic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, there were also Euroleague MVP Vasilije Micic and Virtus Bologna leader Milos Teodosic. But first defections began to pile up pretty soon, with Raduljica, Guduric, and Jaramaz quickly turning down the call because of injuries.

Many other players were still busy with their season at their respective clubs, both in Europe and in the NBA, so they weren't able to work out and train together with the NT. And then came the decision: Nikola Jokic, fresh off his MVP season with the Denver Nuggets, said he wasn't going to join the Serbian NT this summer. Of course, that decision represented a major blow for Serbia and their coach Igor Kokoskov. It immediately created a fuss around Serbian media that something that was supposed to be easy, all of a sudden became much less predictable.

I spoke with Nikola Stojkovic, a journalist for Mozzartsport, who followed Serbian NT closely before and during the tournament in Belgrade. He emphasized how injuries and absences took a toll on the team rather quickly. "The team had a lot of players injured and when Jokic decided not to join the team, the atmosphere around it quickly changed. Even younger players like Pokusevski and Smailagic decided not to join the squad, choosing to work on their game during the off-season instead."

"With all these absences and many other players still busy with their clubs, coach Kokoskov basically didn't have the opportunity to work with a full team. They struggled to have 5 on 5 practices. Micic played his first game with the team directly against the Dominican Republic in the qualifying tournament, he had no practice with the group before. This was a huge limit for Kokoskov and he highlighted this situation several times," said Stojkovic to BasketNews.

Then, of course, there was plenty of situations on the court, where Serbia struggled mightily. It was already clear during the group games that something wasn't right. Especially in the second game, against the Philippines, the team coached by Kokoskov was forced to play a very close game until the very end. The defensive intensity just wasn't there and even offensively the team lacked chemistry and balance, they had to rely heavily on Boban Marjanovic, who was the leading force in the two wins against the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.

But Marjanovic wasn't that effective against Italy though. With two bigs like Polonara and Melli, who used to spend a lot of time on the perimeter, the Serbian center was struggling defensively to keep the pace and coach Kokoskov didn't use him at all in the second half, trying to go for a smaller lineup with guys like Dobric and Petrusev.

"The defense was just very bad," Stojkovic told BasketNews. "They allowed almost 85 points per game. Usually, Serbian NT is a good defensive team but this time the energy just wasn't there."

Coach Kokoskov admitted that the team struggled to find the right rhythm for the entire tournament. But there was a phrase, actually, it was the first thing he said during the press conference after a loss to Italy, "there's no drama". That didn't sit well with many people in Serbia. Not going to the Olympics is a bit (putting it mildly) of a drama in Serbia, especially with the team playing the qualifying tournament at home.

"Several basketball people in Serbia were saying that we lost our national team mojo," Nikola Stojkovic told BasketNews. "I think that everyone should take part of the blame for this failure: players, coaches, and federation. Many are not happy that coach Kokoskov has a double job, being both the head coach of the Serbian NT and of Fenerbahce. They'd love to have someone who's fully focused on the national team. But so far the federation has kept a very low profile and it's not clear if there are going to be major changes. As you know, here in Serbia we live basketball with a very high level of passion and there are people that fear that coach Kokoskov has lost some of that spirit, working in the United States for so many years".

Surely coach Kokoskov has to take some responsibility for what happened. Sure, there were many injuries and little time to work with the team, but from the outside, there was the feeling that he didn't exactly know how to approach the team. For a coach like him, who has already had a lot of success working with national teams (Georgia and Slovenia), he looked a bit unprepared to face the team's difficulties during the tournament. He even admitted after the loss against Italy that the whole group "wasn't ready to sacrifice enough."

Despite a huge disappointment, though, I personally believe this is not the end of the world for the Serbian NT. Of course not playing in the Olympics is not great news but at the same time, I believe that the team is going to be a major force in the 2022 Eurobasket. With the full roster available, Serbia is still one of the strongest teams in the world.

Plus, they're still producing very good talents at the youth basketball level. The whole situation is still in pretty good shape, I'd say. But it's also true that names don't win games and a different kind of mentality has to be shown. Having Jokic and Bogdanovic will make all the difference in the world but other players have to show a different kind of energy if they want to get back to the top. 

So if for some other teams not going to the Olympics might be the signal of much deeper issues, for Serbia the disappointing performance in Belgrade looks more like a bump in the road than a rising crisis within their basketball system. If the right adjustments are made, Serbia will be back to winning medals and scaring other teams away.

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