|Latvia Head Coach Guntis Endzels could not be happier with the 'experiment' the federation tried with his team, as the memorys of the perfomances at U16 level by the same players is still very vivid in his mind|
By Jared Grellet
To prepare their team for the Samsung U18 European Championship, the Latvian Basketball Federation employed a less-traditional method and, despite receiving plenty of opposition, the controversial experiment now appears to be paying dividends.
If there is one recognizable element of the Latvian team on the court in Liepaja, it is how well they know each other's games and their ability to gel as a team.
That is because they have already spent an entire season playing together as a team, in the domestic premier men's competition, the Latvian Basketball League (LBL).
The main architect behind the idea was Latvian basketball Secretary General Edgars Sneps, who cites two main reasons as to why the decision was made to enter the U18s in a competition alongside semi- and fully-professional teams such as Eurocup club VEF Riga and EuroChallenge regulars, Ventspils.
"We felt we had to pay more attention to players of this age," Sneps told FIBAEurope.com, adding, "they are all talented players but because they have not filled out physically yet, they are spending too much time on the bench behind other players on other senior teams [in Latvia]."
By entering them in the competition as their own team, the Latvians had the added bonus of not only playing together as a team, but more importantly, every player was able to clock regular big minutes of playing time ahead of this tournament.
Sneps explained that the second reason was because, as Latvia was bidding to host the tournament when the decision was made, it would improve Latvia's chances of going further in the tournament on home soil.
Exponents to the plan argued that placing the youngsters in the LBL as a separate team would be mentally and physically, too demanding on the players.
By the end of the season the team had managed just one win alongside 15 losses and it appeared the opposers to the idea had a point.
But what could not be readily recognised from the often heavy losses was the immeasurable experience that the undersized Latvians gained from playing much taller, more physical opposition.
This was evidenced in both of their opening wins over France and Turkey, two teams with a significant height and size advantage, as Latvia got past their opponents by playing to their strengths, namely their perimeter game and knowledge of each other.
Despite not playing with the team in the LBL whilst sitting on the sidelines for nine months with an injury, Ceslavs Mateikovics said that the difference between playing with his team before and after the LBL season was significant.
"The guys have really progressed a lot during the season," the Latvian captain said, adding, "it was a very good experience for them to step up their game."
Latvian head coach Guntis Endzels has also been happy with the outcome of the experiment.
"I think it was a great experiment because this same team played together in the U16 European Championship and nearly got eliminated," Endzels said after his team had safely navigated the first round.
"The experience they gained [playing in the LBL] helped them win their first two games and has maybe helped us believe we are better than we actually are."
For a country such as Russia or Spain to try a similar experiment may not prove to be logistically possible and, even for Latvia, the merits of placing a team in the LBL must be reviewed season-to-season.
With this generation of players, the feasibility of putting a team in the LBL was possible as the majority of the team live and play in Riga and the players based outside of the capital city only faced a minimal commute for games.
Ronalds Smits is the only player in the team based overseas, therefore ruling him out of playing in the LBL.
However, as Endzels pointed out, should a number of key players be based outside of Latvia then the federation would have to reconsider the plan, saying that it should only take place, "if it is possible to get the best players together."