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ITA/KAZ - Boniciolli aims to take Kazakhstan to Spain
TRIESTE (FIBA Asia Championship/FIBA Basketball World Cup) - For Kazakhstan, sport has always been the right way to claim pride and ambitions. After starring in cycling and boxing, the country from Central Asia is looking to rise up the basketball ladder.
Italy's Matteo Boniciolli, Kazakhstan's new national team coach, looks hungry and expert enough to help the team aim for a huge target like booking a ticket for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Playing in a world class tournament is something that Kazakhstan has never experienced.
They took the first step towards that lofty goal by qualifying for this summer's FIBA Asia Championship - to be staged in Manila, Philippines from 1-11 August - thanks to an 80-60 win over Uzbekistan in the qualification round. They were recently drawn in Group D with India, Bahrain and a yet-to-be-identified qualifier from SEABA.
After two convincing seasons with Kazakhstan's top club, BC Astana, the 51-year old Boniciolli will target one of the top three spots in Manila, that guarantee a place at next year's FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
"In Kazakhstan, the leading clubs organise the national team's activities, too, and BC Astana's owners were happy with our latest two seasons, as we won the Kazakhstan league twice and qualified for the VTB league playoffs."
The Central Asia team starts its preparation for the FIBA Asia Championship on Saturday 15 June in Trieste, Boniciolli's hometown. They will then move on to Slovenia, Kazakhstan before going to the Philippines for the competition.
Boniciolli has drafter in other Italians to assist him in assistant coaches Stefano Comuzzo and Germano D'Arcangeli.
"I was Boscia Tanjevic's assistant coach in 1999 when Italy won the gold medal at the EuroBasket, and I found out how a national team's coach needs beside him people who understand him only with a look," he said.
"Because in a club, a coach has got nine months to build a team, here you need to complete the same job in 45 days," said the coach who also led Virtus Bologna to victory in the 2009 FIBA Eurochallenge.
"Kazakhstan has got potential, especially with big men. Anton Ponomaryov is 25 years old and stands 2.10m tall. He had a good season with Astana.
"There is also Mikhail Yevstigneyev and 19-year old Alexander Zhigulin, who is playing in Barcelona's youth teams, are interesting players.
Kazakhstan's main perimeter player will be naturalised point guard Jerry Johnson.
"He is a player with big commitment and mentality, his enthusiasm could be a positive factor," said Boniciolli.
The most promising guard is 19-year old Maxim Marchuk, who is appreciated by his coach for his athletic skills.
"When I talked to Valery Tikhonenko, the national team's manager, I said: if we play the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Marchuk will need to get ready for a match-up against LeBron James. But Kazakhstan's ambition is big and everyone wants to take this type of challenge," Boniciolli added.
In Manila, Iran and China look as the main opponents, but Kazakhstan could be a dark horse.
"We need to be the best defense at the FIBA Asia Championship. It will take physical shape, tactical rules and motivation, something that Kazakhstan players and their excellent work ethic can definitely bring," warned Boniciolli.
"We don't hide the fact that we want to play the FIBA World Cup."