By Simon Wilkinson
It's been a while since Turkey last had something to smile about at the EuroBasket, but as they prepare to face Slovenia on Wednesday in the last game of the Qualifying Round, they are safe in the knowledge that they will be returning to the knockout stages for the first time in eight years.
In 2001, on their home soil, the Turks got all the way to the final only to lose to mighty Yugoslavia.
Despite the 78-69 defeat, the silver medal finish was the country's best achievement in the competition. As such, it was cause for optimism and the future was looking bright.
However, early exits in the next three EuroBaskets (2003, 2005 and 2007) cast some dark clouds over the national team and, after they finished 11th with a 1-5 mark in Spain two years ago, it was clear that radical change was needed.
|Many things have changed but Bogdan Tanjevic is still in charge of Turkey.|
A massive clear-out took place: out went the likes of Ibrahim Kutulay and Serkan Erdogan (deemed too old to be a part of the future) as well as Mehmet Okur (at loggerheads with coach Bogdan Tanjevic) and Cenk Akyol (in a downward spiral for the last three years), making way for promising younger players like Sinan Guler, Omer Asik and Semih Erden to stake their claims.
The revamp worked to great effect right away as Turkey won all six of their games in last year's Qualification Round to book their place in Poland.
And happy days are still in effect. Their five wins so far in the tournament are one more than the total number of victories accumulated from their previous three EuroBasket appearances (four).
So, seeing it from the inside, what is so drastically different?
"This year we've become a real team," said Ersan Ilyasova, who leads the team in scoring (17.6) and rebounding (7.4) and is an early candidate for best player of the tournament honours.
"Every player brings something to the team. That's very important. All 12 players are crucial to our success. Belief is an important aspect too. Whenever we step out on that court, we believe that we can win the game and ultimately the championship."
With the World Championships coming their way next year, Turkey are eager to prove what they are worth, to themselves of course, but also to those who will be lining up to watch them.
"It's important to put in a good performance ahead of the World Championships in our country. We want to do well here so that we can give hope to our fans and show them we will be one of the favourites for that tournament. It will be a huge occasion for us," Ilyasova added.
Despite the fact that, as hosts, Turkey have an automatic berth for the World Championships, the Milwaukee Bucks forward isn't satisfied in seeing his team just round up the numbers for the knockout stages in Poland.
"We have done a very good job to come here and win our first five games but our job isn't done," he warned. "Now we have to focus on the game against Slovenia to determine who finishes first in the group. It won't be easy because they have a lot of good outside shooters. But if we play good pick and roll defense we should be fine and have a chance to win the game and it would be a great way to get into the next round."
From a personal standpoint, Ilyasova has relished the chance to step up for his country when they were dealt another blow.
"We are missing Kerem Gonlum and that's hurt us a lot. But we've learned to play without him and I've been able to play the four spot a lot more, which is good because when I played for Barcelona I was playing the three position," he explained.
"I feel more comfortable. I try to do everything to win the game. When I play the four, I get to be closer to the basket so I can get more rebounds and help the team get on the fastbreak. We are a very tall team so that causes a lot of mis-matches. We try to use that to our advantage as much as possible."
Casting his sights ahead to the quarter-finals, Ilyasova calls for caution for his team.
"Once you get to the quarter-finals, anything can happen. It all comes down to one game. So you can't get too confident even if you have the best record or if you are unbeaten," he said.