|19 August 2009|
By Igor Seliun, Minsk
Expectations have never been higher for the Belarus men's national team.
Anything other than promotion to Division A would be considered a failure in Minsk, especially now that Belarus sit comfortably atop Group B in Division B.
When considering the country's primary opponents, Romania and Switzerland, lost to seemingly inferior Cyprus and Albania over the weekend, it has left Belarus needing two wins in four clashes to claim first place and a play-off berth that comes with it.
They will play in Romania on Wednesday.
"It's now or never," said one of the team's veterans, Dzmitry Kuzmin.
"We absolutely have to do it for the fans. The goal is to get to Division A, to bring top-level teams like Spain, Israel, etc, to Belarus."
Team Belarus started its preparations for the second round of the qualification campaign in early July.
Everything went according to plan for Aliaksandr Papkou's men until later that month when they hosted a series of friendly games against Ukraine.
Though the results proved somewhat encouraging, with Belarus losing two games narrowly and comfortably prevailing in another against a team led by Utah Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko, several injury concerns arose.
Most importantly, Mikalai Aliakseyeu, the team's starting center who led Belarus both in scoring at 12 points per game and rebounding at 7.8 per contest in the first round of the qualifications, went down with a bad back.
That left the roster lacking size on defense and a true low-post presence offensively.
It didn't help that another serviceable big man - Aleh Kojenets - couldn't join the team until August due to personal reasons.
As a result, Popkov was forced to come up with a Belarusian version of ‘small ball', and to his credit the system worked pretty well.
The team embarked on a trip to Bulgaria for a three-game friendly tournament with Yahor Meshcharakou, the 2.05m power forward, and 2.02m wing Dzianis Korshuk, sharing minutes at center.
In Sofia, the Belarusians lost to the hosts 113-97 and they took another Division B powerhouse Montenegro to overtime before falling 95-89. Then they outlasted its Group B rival Cyprus 86-80.
Overall, players and coaches are very optimistic about their chances of winning the much-coveted promotion.
"We owe it to the country," said team captain Yahor Meshcharakou .
"We need to get out of Division B, then pass the torch to the younger generation of players who could take the team even further. And there's no reason for us not to qualify for Division A this year.
"No offense to our big guys - they are also valuable to the team - but I believe that Belarus can excel playing the run-and-gun style.
"Having a relatively small line-up in which everybody can run a fast-break and stretch the floor with shooting ability - you might as well call it ‘basketball of the future'.
"It's important not to get too relaxed, though. We have to win as many games in our group as possible in order to avoid a play-off meeting with Montenegro. They're the class of the tournament, nobody wants to play them.
"And to tell the truth, after what happened in Bulgaria, they're (Montenegro) quite reluctant to face us as well."
One of the most intriguing additions to the Belarus squad this year has been Yahor's younger brother, Mikita Meshcharakou.
The 2m forward plays NCAA ball in the United States for Georgetown.
This year has been a personal breakthrough for him as Mikita established his position as a starting five regular for the Hoyas - no small feat for a sophomore.
At some point during this fortnight, he'll achieve another highlight of his young career as he'll make his top-level international debut alongside older brother.