|Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe. If you would like to contact Paul you can e-mail him here firstname.lastname@example.org.|
When Great Britain take to the floor next week in Bydgoszcz, they will break new ground and make history at their first EuroBasket Women tournament.
Not only is this a monumentally important landmark for a team looking to establish themselves as a bona-fide basketball power in years to come, it also potentially provides what could be a harsh wake-up call ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.
|23-year-old guard Johannah Leedham, who has had a very promising start in EuroLeague Women this season, is a key player for Great Britain as a lot of what happens in the backcourt depends on her|
Great Britain have been on a joyful surge during the last 12 months and in fact, it's also been something of a meteoric rise ever since they received special dispensation to remain in Division A despite being relegated a few years ago.
At the time, even the most optimistic of fans probably didn't give them much chance of making it to EuroBasket Women 2011 but to their immense credit and to the surprise of just about everybody, they have taken full advantage.
It even seems such a long time since they were picked apart on home soil by the Slovak Republic on the opening day of the Qualifying Round last summer, the pre-cursor to an instant mood of despondency about their chances of progressing.
However, the one thing Coach Tom Maher will never allow is for the players to feel sorry for themselves. So, it wasn't long before he had pulled them up by their boot laces and within a matter of days, the sunshine poked from behind the clouds and they bounced back with a vengeance.
There is absolutely no doubt this team have shown terrific progress during recent times and could arguably be crowned as the most improved team in Europe. After all, they didn't just scrape into the tournament but finished as proud group winners during qualification by topping a couple of teams who made it to EuroBasket Women 2009 such as Ukraine and the Slovak Republic.
The message is therefore probably to ignore them at your peril - that is if they have their ball handlers Natalie Stafford and Jo Leedham on court who have both missed the preparation games.
|Azania Stewart (pictured) and Chantelle Handy are the two young players that Paul expects will make an impact in Poland |
While they have been pitched into a tough group which includes two of the top four teams in the World, they are capable of defying the doubters once again. On the flip-side they may need to brace themselves for what could be a brutal and savage assessment of their progress and how far they have come during the last couple of years.
With the Olympic Games on the horizon, embracing elite tournaments is an absolute must and that means being both realistic and appreciating the demands at this level. A quick glance at fellow group B opponents Israel who haven't won at the tournament in twenty years is a stark reminder of the task which lies ahead.
Coach Maher has pinpointed their ambition as simply winning a game. So with that in mind, they have an opportunity to make a big noise by claiming the scalp of a World Championship semi-finalist or maybe upsetting the odds against World Championship silver medallists Czech Republic.
On paper at least, Israel represents their best chance of a first EuroBasket Women Final Round victory but then basketball isn't played on paper.
For Great Britain, it's all about the players of this gutsy and underrated team enjoying their moment in the sun and showing everyone that after last year's exploits during the Qualifying Round, they fully deserve their place at the table and are capable of returning to it for many years to come.
Last Time Out: Great Britain did not qualify for EuroBasket Women 2009.
Key Player: Jo Leedham is going to be a star one day claims Maher. She is already a big time player for the National Team and if she doesn't win her fitness race then Great Britain are in big trouble. That's because Leedham can handle the ball, score and make big plays from the perimeter. Most importantly of all, she is a fantastic defender with quick hands who comes up with steals time and time again to hand her team those all-important transition scores. She will be absolutely vital in how the team performs.
Sleeper: Azania Stewart and Chantelle Handy have both played really well of late and so watch out for the pair to make a big impression, especially the latter who has just completed a nice rookie pro season in the Greek league.
X Factor: Offensively they don't have any kind of real firepower and so trading baskets with opponents and enjoying a free-flowing game will probably not be on the agenda. They need to continue their awkward, disruptive and aggressive approach to defence to disrupt the momentum of opponents which has proved effective in the past. This is the ‘X-Factor' for Great Britain. If they get that part right then they can win the ensuing dogfight down the stretch, if they don't stick to what they are good at and look after the fundamentals and basics like boxing out and looking after the ball then will be dead in the water. They are one of the few teams with absolutely no stars to bail them out of trouble.
Did You Know? Influential forward Julie Page was severely injured in a serious car crash only three years ago.
In Just Five Words: They'll find it incredibly tough.