|16 April 2014|
| Dragan Aleksic: "I changed the philosophy of the players because I wanted them to play much faster, faster on transition, faster on offence" |
Szolnoki Olaj are fully immersed in the defence of their Hungarian League title but are also expectantly awaiting their second participation in a EuroChallenge Final Four.
The Hungarian side are facing Triumph Lyubertsy in the first semi-final at Bologna's PalaDozza Arena, on 25 April.
One man who tasted Szolnok's first ever experience of a Final Four and was there when, by coincidence they took on Triumph in the third-place game in 2012, is Dragan Aleksic.
The Serbian tactician was back then an assistant to head coach Peter Por but will arrive in Bologna in charge of Szolnok, after replacing Nedeljko Asceric at the helm on 10 December and steering the Hungarian champions to the big tournament.
Fibaeurope.com caught up with Aleksic in the midst of a hectic Hungarian league schedule to enquire about the state of things at the team that will arrive in the Final Four having played more games this season than any other semi-finalist.
Coach, did you get the chance to scout Triumph yet and determine what are their strong points and what kind of weaknesses your team can exploit?
I have not yet had the time to watch a lot of Triumph because we are still in the middle of the national championship, which is very important to us. But, generally speaking, the way they play is not too different to two years ago (when Szolnok faced Triumph in the EuroChallenge third-place game in Debrecen). [Vasiliy] Karasev was their coach back then too and Triumph has the same style that he likes, with a lot of transition, taking a lot of three-point shots. I expect the same style of play now. I know that they have (Serbian center) Milovan Rakovic who is very experienced in his position and they have very good Americans.
|Vasiliy Karasev steered Triumph Lyubertsy to two Final Four appearances in three years|
Triumph can boast having the best offence and the second-best defence among the four semi-finalists, while Szolnoki are the least efficient team in the Final Four in both respects. How much importance will that bear on the semi-final?
I know about the statistics but the semi-final is just one game, there is a lot of pressure around it and the key is how each team and each player will handle this pressure. You don't get second chances in a Final Four, one mistake and you are out. I think all four teams have the same chances, with Reggio Emilia perhaps having a slight advantage because they play in Italy. But everyone is coming off a long season and the most important thing is to arrive healthy.
Your team is in action roughly once every three days since the ABA Adriatic league regular season finished, while Triumph played their last official game in the VTB league in late March and will arrive in Bologna from training camp in Lithuania. This is a striking difference, are you worried your opponents will be all fresh from holiday while your players will be tired?
I was so surprised when I looked at Triumph's schedule, that initially I thought it must be a mistake. I had to double-check to believe they really had one month off. In my experience, this could be good for us. One month without a game means that you can lose focus, the team can go out of shape. But on the other hand they have all the time to prepare for us while we are playing other teams and they avoid injuries. So there are both advantages and disadvantages, but I prefer our situation.
What changes has Szolnok underwent since December and what did you have to do in order to reach this Final Four?
After I took over the team, we first changed Chris Oliver and then later Willie Warren left. I changed a lot of other things, especially the philosophy of the players because I wanted them to play much faster, faster on transition, faster on offence. We tried to do a couple of changes on defence too but because we didn't have so much time to practice we had to do it almost all during games. I am pretty satisfied right now with how the team is playing.
Were you prepared for the moment that the club came to you and asked you to step up in the place of Nedeljko Asceric?
At the moment I finished my playing career (at Szolnok, in 2009), we had an understanding (with the club) that little by little I would start working in coaching and one day I would become the head coach. I did not imagine it would ever happen in the middle of the season, but it came about that the club decided to part ways with Nedeljko Asceric in December. The club proposed to me to take over because we had a game every three days and it would be too dangerous to bring a coach from outside, that would need time to get to know the team. I've been here for years, I know the club and the team and although it was the middle of the season and it was a tough moment, I took the risk and accepted it.
Are you happy now that you took that decision?
From this distance, it seems it was an excellent decision because we improved as a team, we won the Hungarian Cup and we reached the EuroChallenge Final Four for the second time in the history of the club, which for this club was its biggest success.
|International competition has proven to be a fruitful experience for Hungarian youngster David Vojvoda |
Why does Szolnoki Olaj prefer to dedicate so many resources and play so many games each season by participating in the EuroChallenge and the Adriatic league? Is the Hungarian league and cup not enough?
Our club and our president want to go up a level and playing in the EuroChallenge and the Adriatic league is the opportunity for a Hungarian team to step out of the borders of the country. We want to put Szolnok on the basketball map of Europe and I think that many more people in Europe now know about the club because it plays in those international competitions. Another part of it is that our young Hungarian players can get more experience of strong competitions and then they can transfer this experience to the national team in the summer. And for the club, it is important that young Hungarian internationals like [David] Vojvoda or [Akos] Keller become better players and help the national team more in the future.
You arrived in Hungary as a player in 2004 from an advanced basketball country like Serbia. Have you seen any improvement in Hungarian basketball over this last decade?
The big difference is the work that is done at junior level. In Serbia it is much more serious, the children are more focused on basketball. But this has been changing in Hungary where there are now basketball academies, the state has helped a lot in that direction and I think in the next 5-10 years there will be more very good Hungarian basketball players around Europe. Now they are putting more energy, more resources into basketball and coaches can work seriously with the children, so I think the future will be much better for Hungary.