France came into the 2008 Termosteps U16 Eurofpean Championship as the defending champions and winners from 2001. So there is tremendous pressure facing French boss Arnaud Guppillotte even though he is serving his first tourament has a head coach.
Guppillotte, however, has just three players back from the team which won the U16 title in Valmiera, Latvia last summer, including none of the dynamic trio of tournament MVP Diandra Tchatchouang, Allison Vernerey and Margaux Okou Zouzouo.
Guppillotte, who was the U16 assistant coach in 2006 and worked with this France group last summer as 15-year-olds, says he is relying on a more balanced and deep rotation in Katowice and has led his team to a perfect 3-0 start to top Group A. After France's most recent victory over Lithuania, Guppillotte talked to fibaeurope.com about pressure of following a championship-winning team, the French development program INSEP and his decision to not bring in a playmaker who played in the French first division at 16 years of age.
Fibaeurope.com: So, coach Guppillotte, France's results so far have been: 74-54, 75-52 and 75-40. You must be happy about your team's defense thus far.
Guppillotte: Defense is always a big project for France at European Championships because we think it's very important to have the same level of defense because sometimes it's difficult to execute on offense when the girls are tired. We are always working on good defense.
Fibaeurope.com: Through three games, what have been the keys to France's success?
Guppillotte: We try to contain the other team's point guard and always be on the player everywhere on the court - even if we need to call for help. But we always want to be on the player. The other key for us is rebounds. Rebounds, rebounds, rebounds. Try to have a good area for the rebounds and clean the paint.
Fibaeurope.com: This team on paper is defending U16 champion, but it is very different from last season with only three holdovers from the 2007 winning side which included three young star. What is the difference from last season?
Guppillotte: It's really difficult because last year you really had three great players and now we have just three players who played at this level last year. But we have a very young team and one without any superstar talent. But we are lucky because we have 12 players who can play together on the court. I hope this rotation will allow us to have the same rhythm game after game. If you only have eight players, game after game, you get tired. So we are lucky that way.
Fibaeurope.com: Hélèna Akmouche, Adja Konteh and Marion Lemonnier are the three players returning from last summer. Do you have any one player you look to for leadership?
Guppillotte: Well, all three. But that is normal. The experience is important. But I do not want make a pyramid structure within the team. Each player can play their game. It's most important to say to the players, today it's your game and then the next game it will be someone else. So we don't have a real statistical leader but instead different players who can lead on offense.
Fibaeurope.com: France won the title last year. Do you feel any pressure to repeat that championship, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Guppillotte: In the French federation, every year we have to finish in the top four. Last year everybody in France knew we had three great players who should be the three great players in the senior team in three or four years. Everybody knows that. And now there is pressure on me to get the results - but not for the team. Everybody says we have a different team with medium players - not really great players who can take over games. But there is pressure for me and this is the first time as a head coach too. You must get the results. But it's only basketball.
Fibaeurope.com: Five of your French players - Hélèna Akmouche, Adja Konteh, Marion Lemonnier, Florine Basque and Eléonore Grossemy - have been in the INSEP since September and two more - Jodie Cornelie and Christelle Diallo - will enter the program this year. You saw the five players in INSEP now last summer, how much difference and development have you seen in those players?
Guppillotte: Players practice twice a day in INSEP. So your level goes up very quickly compared to the other players who practice only once a day. So there is a very big difference.
Fibaeurope.com: Looking at your roster for this championship there is a name noticably missing - Tracy Albicy, who plays in the first division in France already at 16 years of age. Could you describe what happened with her not being selected for this tournament?
Guppillotte: At the beginning of the preparations, I thought, okay, we have a playmaker who already has played in the first division. But Tracy did not convince me during the preparations so we cut her and brought with us Esther Moisan Niamke, who was born inn 1993.
Fibaeurope.com: France's opponents in the Qualifying Round will be Czech Republic, Sweden and Belgium. What do you think about the next round?
Guppillotte: I think Sweden and Belgium are better than Czech Republic. Sweden is a very long and strong team with four very good players. Belgium has a lot of fast breaks and hard defense. I hope it will be easier to play Belgium in the last game because they must give a lot of energy on the court to win games and may be tired. In the half court it's more difficutl for them.