|Brad Dean and Okapi Aalstar are on the verge of moving into the EuroChallenge Last 16|
By Dimitris Kontos
Despite the absence through injuries of their starting backcourt duo, star point guard Derek Raivio and shooting guard Travis Releford, Okapi Aalstar clinched a 70-63 win at GasTerra Flames Groningen last Tuesday that brought them within one step of a EuroChallenge Last 16 berth.
In order to deal with the blow of missing two players who combined for almost 23 points and six assists per game, Brad Dean, the head coach of the Belgian side, had to go back to the drawing board and reinvent his team's play.
"Before we were more of an outside-in team with Derek and Travis, now we are more of an inside-out team," Dean told fibaeurope.com.
"We try to get our big men around the basket more involved and control the tempo, cause we don't have the depth, and we try to play much stingier defence.
"It's coming along, we are still lacking key parts to our team of course but the guys are buying into what we are doing and it seems to be functioning pretty well."
So well in fact, that the short-handed Okapi will take second place in Group E and advance to the Last 16 if they defeat Team TEHO Sport Kotka in their final game of the Regular Season, next Tuesday.
"It's a game at home, we are going to do everything we can to win," Dean said.
"I think the Finnish team are very athletic, they played pretty well against the Italians [Reggio Emilia] and we are aware that if we don't play well against them, we will lose.
"Everybody has to be on board or we will be in trouble, that's for sure."
"We are there to fight and I think the guys are fighting and competing and for sure if there is one thing that is really building, it's character.
"You can say whatever you like about us physically, but our character is growing."
This is not the first time that Okapi have struggled with injuries through a EuroChallenge campaign.
Up to a certain extent, their current situation is a deja-vu of the predicament they found themselves during last season, when they made it to the Last 16, but at a cost to their fitness.
"It's like a double-edged sword, because we are playing to advance of course, but at the same time it's been taking a beating on us, because when we come to our [domestic] competition we are worn down," Dean said.
"I think this is the difference between the Euroleague and the EuroChallenge, perhaps not every team but most teams are at the highest level and they usually have a 12-man rotation, so you rarely see any player playing for more than 25 minutes.
"They don't have to put such a heavy burden on their players, they are built to play very heavy schedules.
"A lot of the teams in the EuroChallenge, ourselves included, have a pretty solid roster when we are healthy but when we begin to drop people, it becomes kind of a snowball effect."
A CLUB NEEDS TO BE AMBITIOUS
|Dean believes the size of Okapi Aalstar's home arena is holding the club back from playing in higher competitions in Europe|
To an external observer, the persistence of a relatively modest club like Okapi, who have taken part in the EuroChallenge uninterruptedly for five seasons now even at the risk of damaging their chances in the Ethias League by suffering losses to their already short rotation, can be perplexing.
Dean, who first worked in Belgium [at Oostende] in 1989, went to Germany, had his first stint at Okapi in 1999 and then returned almost a decade ago to tie his personal fortunes to those of the club, is probably the ideal person to put this approach into perspective.
"You have to have ambitions as a club, you have to have dreams," the 60-year-old coach offers.
"Right now it's kind of a stepping stone for us but you cannot just stagnate and stay in the same place, you have to show to your players, your fans, your sponsors and everybody that you are an ambitious club, and we are very ambitious.
"To be honest, with our budget, if you want good players to come you need to compete in Europe.
"It's important as we build the team that the players that come here know that we have the ambition to play in Europe.
"We would like to get to a point in the future where we are a team like Oostend or Charleroi here in Belgium, where the fans are expecting to play at the highest level in Europe, they are used to that.
"The big thing holding us back is the gym, we have to get a gym that holds more than 3,000 people, both for our budget and to compete at a higher level."
Another beneficial aspect of participating in the EuroChallenge is the effect it has on the young Belgian players on team, especially Arne Steinbach and Naim El Khounchar, who have stepped up to fill the void in recent weeks.
"These extra games [in the EuroChallenge] every week give a chance to our two young point guards," Dean said.
"They give them a lot of experience and routine that they wouldn't otherwise have.
"So we are gaining that, and we are also learning to play against different styles, that makes us I think more complete as a team."
SWEDISH MISSION ACCOMPLISHED
|Ludvig Hakanson is one of 16 players Dean introduced to the Swedish men's team during his tenure as their head coach|
Dean, who defines himself as '51% American,' has lived and worked in Europe during most of his life.
He first landed in Sweden when he came from Los Angeles in the 1970s and worked there for a total of 15 years, developing strong ties with the country, also on personal level.
Sweden will however go into the Qualification Round for EuroBasket 2015 next summer with a new coach holding the reins charge, as Dean's tenure has come to an end.
"They [Swedish Federation] hired me four years ago on a 2+2 contract and the goals at that time were to get to the EuroBasket, to go through a generational switch and to introduce a new style of play, a little more aggressive," Dean explained.
"I think we did that, we qualified for the EuroBasket, we had a young team with a lot of young players coming in.
"During my four years I had 16 players debut with the national team and even last year we had a 17-year-old [Ludvig Hakanson] that started for us at point guard at the EuroBasket, and three rookies out of the 12 players.
"So I thought on the professional side what I was hired to do was accomplished, but it takes a toll.
"I am coaching here at Okapi for almost 10 months and the rest of the time in the summer I am gone with the Swedish national team, so it becomes a 12-month a year occupation with no free time.
"I just felt it was the right time to move on.
Dean will continue to keep an eye on Sweden, even from a distance, and he is quite optimistic about their future.
"I had said that if we had not make it to EuroBasket, I would have failed in my job," he said.
"As it turned out we made that goal and although we didn't win a lot of games, we did win the right games and ended up in the top 16 in Europe, ahead of teams like Turkey or Russia, something that I don't think anybody expected."
"I feel that they are in a pretty good place right now, they have a new core group [of players], they know what it is like to play in the European Championship, so there is the foundation there now to build on."
THE EUROPEAN REVOLUTION
A European's view that basketball on our continent has made the most enormous strides from anywhere in the world during the past two-to-three decades can be considered as subjective, but Dean, who had the benefit of experiencing progress in Europe from the initial standpoint of an outsider, goes even further than considering it as simple evolution.
"I've seen this whole revolution go through," the Okapi coach said.
"There was a period that we stagnated in the United States, we got a little passive, a little full of ourselves.
"And then the Europeans came on the scene and started beating the American teams internationally, also European players started playing big roles in the NBA, and it helped people on the American side to raise their level.
"So I think it's helped both ways, it started with the Americans popularising the sport worldwide, coming up with the marquee players everyone wanted to see play, but then there was a period that the Europeans started to take over."
Just how much better are European players and the European game nowadays compared to the time Dean arrived on this side of the Atlantic?
"You can look at it two ways," the coach offers.
"There are some arguments about the game being more pure before, as far as maybe the style of play was more team-oriented.
"But at the same time the talent level is much, much higher now, overall.
"Of course there were great players in the past but from top to bottom, the talent level has just risen so much that players have to be in shape, have to work in the off-season, they cannot take days off if they want to play with the best.
"I've seen a lot of young good players at EuroBasket and I think it will continue to improve and get better."