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Hardened Russia still aim high at EuroBasket 2015
MOSCOW (EuroBasket 2015) - Nobody on the Russian national team has looked for excuses ahead of EuroBasket 2015, despite one setback following another and good news arriving few and far between in what started as a summer of discontent.
Sasha Kaun retired at the end of the club season and then Timofey Mozgov found out he needed surgery, leaving Russia head coach Evgeny Pashutin without his dream center duo, while Sergey Karasev also dropped out of the squad early on because of injury.
On 29 July, FIBA's Executive Committee suspended the Russian Basketball Federation (RBF) because of their inability to resolve long-standing institutional and legal issues, which rendered the Russian national team ineligible to compete at the upcoming EuroBasket.
A few days later, it was announced that Aleksey Shved was submitted to tests by the Khimki medical team following his arrival at the Moscow Region club which revealed he had a lower back problem and needed to follow treatment throughout the rest of the summer.
It was time for coach Pashutin to rally the troops and make sure spirits remained high as Russia were carrying on preparations regardless, in hope of the suspension being lifted.
"There was not point in clogging our heads with unnecessary thoughts as nothing in this situation depended on us."
On Sunday, the Russian team received news from Tokyo that FIBA's Central Board had decided to uphold RBF's suspension but to exceptionally grant players and officials the right to participate in the upcoming FIBA events, including of course EuroBasket.
Then on Wednesday Pashutin wore a big smile on his face as Andrey Vorontsevich joined his Russia team-mates in training camp and took part in his first practice session this summer.
The experienced CSKA power forward had picked up an unfortunate injury roughly 10 days prior to EuroBasket 2013 and missed out on the tournament after going through the entire preparations.
Vorontsevich went into this summer battling an injury but received on Wednesday the green light to play at EuroBasket and having him in the Russian frontcourt will be an enormous help to the trio of young centers Ruslan Pateev, Andrei Desiatnikov and Artem Klimenko, none of which has played at a EuroBasket tournament before.
The guys received me normally, I am very pleased to have joined the team, I can say I feel a bit euphoric to see everybody again. - Vorontsevich
"I don't feel fully fit yet, but I have no aches or pains," Vorontsevich said.
"I understand that I need to catch up, no matter how much you train individually it is impossible to simulate five-on-five basketball.
"But I do not think that it will be something entirely new for me, I have worked with coach Pashutin at both CSKA and on the U20 national team in 2006, so we understand each other very well."
Things are looking up for Russia once again.
"The only thing we lack is a clear leader, the player who will take the decisive shot at the end of the game," Ponkrashov, who was a member of the EuroBasket 2007 gold-medal winning team, explained.
"Now we don't have those players and we're trying to figure out who plays this role in the coming months."
Ponkrashov was made Russia's captain last summer during the Second Qualification Round campaign but in his mind it is clear that there is a veteran - and fellow EuroBasket 2007 champion - who will assume the role of leader on the Russian team at EuroBasket 2015.
"I try to be honest and firstly, I had not played for five months," Ponkrashov, who suffered a cruciate ligament rupture in early February and was very doubtful for this summer's EuroBasket, said.
"Secondly, my minutes on the floor are still limited due to the effects of rehabilitation and that's a physical issue, although psychologically, I am always ready to give my maximum and the guys know it.
"To me, our real captain is still Sergey Monya.
The formalities do not mean anything, you need to be a captain and leader on the floor and in our team that player is Sergey. - Ponkrashov
"Because of health problems, he was unable to play in qualifying last summer and the guys chose me, so for now it was decided not to change anything.
It appears like the 2015 Russian team's character has been forged through overcoming absences and adversity, but how far can that take them at the EuroBasket?
"Let's say that our aim is to work, every single day, very hard," Ponkrashos said.
"If you give 100 percent, the result will come at the end, it cannot be otherwise because in sport you put in the effort and you get the reward.
"And this team has potential and I believe, I know, that we will be very competitive even without Mozgov and Shved.
"Maybe for a place in the Olympics, or even for the medals.
"The main thing is to not give up."
Go to eurobasket2015.org for complete coverage of EuroBasket 2015.