By Yarone Arbel
When Barons LMT Riga picked Coach Karlis Muiznieks to lead them last summer they were probably hoping he would bring with him some of his winning mentality.
Muiznieks was one of the best Latvian players during the 1990's and played a couple of times in EuroBasket with the national team in addition to winning local titles.
In 2005 and 2007 he returned to EuroBasket with the Latvian team, this time as the head coach. A spot he earned thanks to his good seasons in his native nation as a coach during his time Ventspils.
|Muiznieks is proud that his roster is full of Latvian stars like Armands Skele.|
Under him Ventspils won five domestic championships in a row, and during that span dropped only a single play-off games, with the finals played in a best-of-seven system. In 2003 they showed success also in the international scene by reaching the Final Four of FIBA Europe's Champions Cup where they finished third.
In the past two years the club scene in Latvia has grown. After several years of total domination of Ventspils we now see two other teams coming from the Baltic country - ASK Riga and the new EuroCup champs Barons LMT.
The move of coach Muiznieks from Ventspils to Barons is another example of the wake up call Latvian basketball got.
Muizneiks now joins the hall of fame of Latvian basketball, after bringing the country its first European title as an independent entity, since the last team to win a European title in basketball was ASK Riga, back in 1960 representing the Soviet Union.
Don't think for a second Barons and their coach have a lot of time to celebrate. This coming weekend they'll play in the Final Four of the Baltic league, and next Muizneiks will try to win the Latvian championship again, this time with a different team.
A minute before they put behind the great experience in Limassol, Cyprus in the EuroCup Final Four behind them the triumphant coach spoke with fibaeurope.com about his EuroCup experience this season and the rise of Latvian basketball.
FIBA Europe: What went through your mind when Dexia came back from minus 12 points to tie the game and take the lead?
Coach Muiznieks: "We were well prepared for this game. I can say that what we had planned to do, we managed to execute on the floor. Dexia is a good team with a good coach and they tried to break the game to come back. They managed to do it for a while, but I told my team to keep doing what we talked about and do their job. We played with discipline in defense and that helped us a lot."
FIBA Europe: In the first half your team managed to shut out Dexia's front line. How did you prepare for that?
Coach Muiznieks: "We knew they are very good team in transition offense, and have very good rebounding. We prepared our defense for those things, so we were ready for that. We had a good first half in that side of the court, boxed them out and got the rebounds."
FIBA Europe: In the qualification round you survived only by a single point, and now you won the title by one point. Is that more than just coincidence?
Coach Muiznieks: "During the season we had a lot of close games. Step by step we came to the title game and then the experience we gained during the season in these moments helped us a lot. We haven't talked about the common grounds with the games in the qualification round, but of course we enjoy every win, especially when you win a title game by one point."
FIBA Europe: Were you surprised Dexia didn't miss the second free throw?
Coach Muiznieks: "We thought they would try to miss, so we put on court one more big guy so he'll help to take the rebound, but that was Dexia's decision, and we couldn't do anything but react to what they decide to do."
FIBA Europe: What can you say about Demetrius Alexander's performance this season?
Coach Muiznieks: "He's very important player for our team, not only on the court, but also off court with the relationship he has with his team-mates and the coaching staff. The level of his game and how much energy he puts into it effects a lot the way we will play. In the finals he didn't score a lot of points, but he made important shots, helped in defense and was everywhere on court."
FIBA Europe: You also got a big performance in the finals by Armands Skele. What are you thoughts on his game?
Coach Muiznieks: "He was one of the best players in this EuroCup season. If he had hit a couple of three-pointers he could have won the MVP award. He's another very important player for us. He's helping in defense and offense, he steals many balls and you can see in the stats he has done a great job."
FIBA Europe: In the last years we see a growth in Latvian basketball. Do you believe winning this title will give another push?
Coach Muiznieks: "The basketball in Latvia is developing in all levels in the recent years. We see it in the clubs level, as well as in the youth national teams, and the senior national team that is trying to make it back to be in the Top 10 teams in Europe like it was in 2001. Development is happening all the time, and that's very good. I hope this title will push the development faster."
FIBA Europe: Some teams choose to rely on foreigners. You have a lot of key local players. Is it important for you to have many Latvian players in your team?
Coach Muiznieks: "As a Latvian coach I want as many Latvian players as I can on my team. We're a club and not a national team, but this year we have six Latvian key players, and the polish guy on our squad is married to a Latvian woman and speaks the language. We have four foreigners on our club, and for us it's not a small amount. It's not the club's policy to have a lot of foreigners, but this year it happened like that and we try to use it for our best. Import players raise the level of competition in the team and the Latvian players can use that and improve from that."
FIBA Europe: This is the first European title for Latvia as an independent country. What does it mean for Latvian basketball?
Coach Muiznieks: "We're very happy about the title. The last time a Latvian team won a European title was 48 years ago and now we did it again. This title isn't only for our club - Barons LMT. It's a title for all Latvia, its basketball and the people of the country."