|Small forward Siim-Sander Vene, who emerged as Estonia's leader in this Qualification Round, will turn 22 in November |
By Jeff Taylor
These are tough days in Estonian basketball.
The men's national side coached by Tiit Sokk came ever so close to reaching next year's EuroBasket but missed out in cruel fashion.
The Baltic side won six of its 10 games, just as Israel and Serbia did, and claimed a victory against each of them.
Yet with Montenegro going undefeated with 10 wins to top Qualificaton Round Group A, a goal differential tie-breaker was used to determine the order of finish for the next three sides and it was Israel to end up second, Serbia third and Estonia fourth.
Iceland and the Slovak Republic (both 1-9) came in fifth and sixth, respectively.
Montenegro and Israel advanced to the EuroBasket directly while Serbia claimed a spot as one of the four best third-placed teams in the six groups.
Despite a 60 percent win rate, Estonia missed out on the 24-team event.
The only thing crueler than the end result for Estonia was the draw.
They had their backs against the wall from the off.
"After the draw it was clear that we had one of the most difficult groups," Estonian Basketball Association secretary general Karel Loide said.
"First of all, there were teams like Serbia, Israel and Montenegro which could actually all be first-seed teams, secondly we had an additional team, Iceland, that increased both the distances and amount of travel destinations.
"Both Slovakia and Iceland have top players so it was impossible to underestimate them, also."
STRESSING THE POSITIVES
Estonia do not need to hang their heads.
If anything, everyone should applaud them.
"We had a good run in preparation games and Division B games in 2011," Loide said. "Plus, we have a generation of players coming from the U20 age category that showed solid performances during the club season so we were hoping to give a hard time to all of our opponents at least on our home court.
"We understood that third place could be a realistic goal, but I think nobody thought that we would have the same record as Israel and Serbia at the end.
"It was a hard tournament, especially considering that we were missing five players - some of whom have been actually starting-five players in the past.
"I think the coaching staff did an excellent job in utilizing the strengths that the players have and tactically, they outplayed most of the opposition."
Praise is richly deserved when considering that Estonia beat Serbia, the side that captured silver at EuroBasket 2009.
"The home game against Serbia was probably the best performance and this was a team effort," Loide said.
|Kristjan Kangur, the most seasoned veteran on the Estonia roster this summer, is only 30 years old|
"There was not one player who dominated but all the men stepped up both on offense and defense.
"At the beginning, Serbia underestimated us a bit I think and during the game it was hard for them to adjust since points came from all the players and from the paint and the three-point line.
"The best statistic line to describe that game was the 23 assists from the Estonian side."
Serbia had just five.
"The worst game, on the other hand, was against Israel at home where our team lost the game psychologically," Loide said.
"There was not enough experience to handle the must-win situation, although the atmosphere inside the arena was excellent.
"Looking back, this was one of the key games considering the qualification."
TIME IS ON THEIR SIDE
The point that European basketball should take on board from the Qualification Round when it comes to Estonia is that they expected to be competitive.
The Estonians went into their campaign believing they could win.
"I understand that the performance of the team was a surprise to many but considering the background, it does make sense," Loide said.
"Our top clubs have been playing in the Baltic League and VTB (United League) for a long time.
"Some of our top players are playing in good clubs in Europe.
"Also, we have had modest success in the U20 European Championship during the past two years when we earned promotion to Division A (in 2011) and finished 15th this season.
"Our U18 team has averaged 20th position in overall European ranking for six years in a row.
"For a small nation where there are a few talents in each age group, I think we have been on the right track with our programs and there are interesting talents emerging."
Perhaps no Estonia player raised eyebrows as much as Siim-Sander Vene, a 2.03m small forward.
He led the team with an average of 14 points, and also corralled 6.8 boards per contest.
"At the age of 21, Siim-Sander Vene was the top scorer this qualification and at the age of 19, Rain Veideman was third best scorer of the team in 2011," Loide said.
"Unfortunately, he was out due to injury this summer."
Estonia's mindset when looking ahead is one that is upbeat.
"I hope that the qualification would become a tradition in the future, not a surprise," Loide said.
"For that, we need to have all of our best players available and a bit of luck during the draw."