image credit: www.karfan.is
By George Rowland / @georgerowland
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The 2012 Olympics in London were supposed to spark a resurgence in British basketball that would see the programme continue to rise after its relaunch in 2006. Instead they stand on the brink of missing Eurobasket 2015, after an 83-70 loss to Iceland in Reykjavik.
However, this should come as a surprise to no one, after a disastrous preparation period that saw GB pick up just one win (against Moldova) in seven games. Nor should a poor GB performance detract from what was a very well drilled and talented Icelandic squad.
The Iceland rotation was bizarre, without Jon Arne Steffansson and Jakub Sigurdsson they played just six players for major minutes, but among those six were three with ACB experience (Pavel Ermolinskij, Haukur Palsson and Hordur Vilhjalmsson) the reigning two-time Swedish league defensive player of the year (Hlynur Baeringsson) and two very high quality domestic league players (Martin Hermannsson and Logi Gunnarsson).
In many ways, the constraint of having to play a short rotation helped the Icelanders. With all of their players standing between 190cm and 202cm they had a massive size deficit to GB, yet their uniform deficit in height meant that they had absolutely no qualms about switching screens, which they did any time one came. Though this sometimes meant Hordur Vilhjalmsson or Martin Hermannson were guarding Dan Clark or Kieron Achara they both put up an admirable show in fronting the post and denying the ball.
When the ball did come into the post in deep position there was always a trap coming, with a man constantly coming across from the weakside to disrupt GB and force many turnovers and bad passes. Credit must also go to Hlynur Baeringsson for putting up an incredible performance against a much bigger British frontline. At just 200cm and lacking athleticism it seemed he could be in for a tough day, but he perfectly toed the line between aggressive and reckless, timed almost every defensive rotation and rebound perfectly and bodied up on men much bigger than himself.
Offensively Iceland, while not perfect, were very flexible, with every player on court capable of shooting, passing and driving adeptly. Due to GB’s size advantage Iceland looked to push the break early, with Haukur Palsson being the only above average athlete on the team he was the most frequent finisher in transition, whether it was at the rim or behind the three point line. In transition was where Pavel Ermolinskij thrived too, while he struggled with his own shot all game his ability to find an open man in transition and to make the right pass quickly enough to keep his man open tore GB apart, especially in the opening quarter where he picked up five assists.
In contrast to GB, in half court Iceland always looked to exploit any mismatches coming from screens, whether it was Hlyvur Baeringsson driving on Eric Boateng to send him to the bench early on; Haukur Palsson posting up Devon van Oostrum or Devan Bailey or, as became the theme of the fourth quarter Martin Hermannsson beating whomever was in front of him. Hermannsson was a phenom in the fourth, looking like the skinniest player on court, he was comfortable taking hard contact to finish some really tough shots at the rim, as well as blowing by any comers to hit some silky smooth pull up jumpers at the elbow. At just 19 years old he is heading to the USA to college next year at LIU Brooklyn, and should have a solid European career ahead of him.
Despite this at times Iceland did stall, during the middle part of the game their half-court offence became stagnant as they had to resort to Pavel Ermolinskij and Hordur Vilhjelmsson creating their own shot which was often wound up being an off-target pull up jumpshot from the dribble, as both players combined to shoot 6-for-25 from the field.
GB on the other hand struggled mightily offensively, save for the middle period of the game when they got hot from behind the three point line. Coach Prunty’s drive and kick offence, which has been ineffective in the warm up games, was particularly poor against a defence that was completely at home switching onto a different defender and then trapping from it.
The lack of a secondary ball handler to Devon van Oostrum was telling because of this, as the ball movement would stagnate while they tried to exploit any mismatches.
There were some bright spots: Kieron Achara made some nice long armed scoop shots from the post, and Dan Clark did manage to score well, splashing home some threes and finishing two strong dunks. But Clark also looked mechanical on his way to six turnovers, and as mentioned before, the ball often stopped while they failed to find him in deep post position.
The game was also one of two coaches. Coach Pedersen of Iceland seemed cool throughout, allowing his players to make mistakes, and while they were obviously very well drilled, they were also allowed to be completely free to make their own decisions. While this sometimes lead to an ill-advised jump shot or to over dribbling, it paved the way for his players to play naturally within a system that was tailored to their own strengths and weaknesses, and also to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. In addition to this, the fact that a six man rotation played the entire game in an uptempo offensive and defensive system is testament to the superb strength and conditioning of the players.
On the other hand Coach Prunty seemed to have a constant expression of consternation on his face, and seemingly expressed a look of shock and surprise when Hlynur Baeringsson (a 38% three point shooter last year) knocked down a wide open three to cap the Icelandic fourth quarter run.
Prunty’s rotation seemingly mimicked his confusion about the Icelandic team, Eric Boateng played the first three minutes of the game and didn’t come off the bench again after he couldn’t guard Hlynur; Dan Clark started at the four spot and couldn’t keep up with Haukur Palsson. In a team crying out for an athletic impact in the front court, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Ashley Hamilton played almost no part.
It’s tough to say where GB go next, especially if they do miss out on Eurobasket qualification. But one thing is for sure – qualification or not, major changes need to be made.