25 August, 2023
10 September
9 Sasu Salin (FIN), 23 Lauri Markkanen (FIN)
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Finland geared up for World Cup after being drawn in 'Group of Death'

HELSINKI (Finland) - Instead of quaking in their boots after landing in a "group of death" at the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Draw presented by Wanda in Manila, Finland are fired up.

The Susijengi, who will compete in Group E against Australia, Germany, and Japan in Okinawa, won't be favorites on the basis of the FIBA World Ranking. The Boomers are No. 3, Germans No. 11, Finns No. 24, and Japanese No. 36.

Lassi Tuovi steered Finland through a difficult field in the European Qualifiers to clinch a spot in the World Cup

Yet rather than fretting, the Finns are excited. They're honored to be in what is considered the toughest World Cup group.

"I think it's a compliment for us as a team because we all know that Australia and Germany are for sure favorites to win a medal and go very far in this tournament," Lassi Tuovi, Finland head coach said.

"This says a lot for us and Japan, that many people consider us as a strong team at the World Cup level."

When the draw was made in Manila, the makeup of Group E had everyone buzzing.

Australia were fourth at the 2019 World Cup and then bronze medal winners at the Tokyo Olympics. Patty Mills and Joe Ingles, both NBA players, were the leaders of that Boomers team and are expected to be with the team again after being named to the extending roster. There will be other NBA players with Australia, too.



Germany have really turned it up a notch. In 2021, they won the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Split and reached the Quarter-Finals in Tokyo. Next, they clinched third place at FIBA EuroBasket 2022, an event that was so tough that superstars Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece, Nikola Jokic of Serbia, and Luka Doncic of Slovenia did not reach the podium.

Japan are a growing force, too, and could perform well in Group E under coach Tom Hovasse. Point guard Yuki Kawamura has been a smash hit in Japan's B. League while NBA players Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe will be important as expected. They'll also have the advantage of being at home.

It all adds up to three tough games for Finland.

"We are always the underdog," said Henrik Dettmann, the former coach of Finland who led the team at the 2014 World Cup. "So I guess that's how we are going to be forever if we don't talk about ice hockey."

Finland have reason to be confident, though. In Tuovi, who was Dettmann's assistant for many years until taking the reins before EuroBasket 2022, the Finns have one of the finest young coaches in the world. He is 36 years old.

In his first tournament in charge, Finland had a sensational run to the Quarter-Finals of EuroBasket 2022. Lauri Markkanen played as if he'd descended from heaven. One of the biggest stars in the NBA with Utah, Markkanen averaged 27.9 points per game, along with 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. In a Round of 16 win over Croatia, he did something that only legends do, and that was pouring in an astonishing 43 points.

Even without Markkanen, Finland excelled in the European Qualifiers and punched their ticket for the World Cup.

Markkanen led Finland to a spot in the Quarter-Finals at FIBA EuroBasket 2022 in Berlin

No one should be surprised that Finland have qualified for the World Cup.

"Of course, we were not that far last time (attempting to qualify for 2019 World Cup), we have to remember," Tuovi said. "We were in the do-or-die game in Russia, to qualify or not."

Finland went into that last qualifying game against Russia needing to win by three points. They led 71-69 with 6:55 remaining and then trailed by two with 4:20 to go. Finland went cold from the floor the rest of the way and lost, 91-76.

The Finns learned their lesson and did not leave it late in the next World Cup qualifiers.

They were the first European team to clinch a World Cup spot, doing so with a victory over Estonia on August 28, with four qualifiers windows still left to play.

"This says something about sports," Tuovi said. "Sometimes you need to walk your road to become successful. You don't succeed automatically by clicking your fingers.

Finland beat Estonia on August 28 and became the first team in Europe to qualify for the 2023 World Cup

"Most of the players, we had this opportunity and we were successful. So you need to try enough times to reach your goals. It's just a logical part of the process."

While most of the attention in Finland has been on the remarkable year of Markkanen at EuroBasket 2022 and then in the NBA, where he was an All-Star and winner of the Most Improved Player Award, other players have continued to improve as well.

Sasu Salin, who has made more three-pointers than any player in the history of the seven-year-old Basketball Champions League with Lenovo Tenerife, won the FIBA Intercontinental Cup this year.

His team reached the Final of the Copa del Rey and played at the BCL Final Four.

Salin, the Finland captain, is the only member of the team that played at the 2014 World Cup, when the opponents were USA, Turkey, Dominican Republic, Ukraine and New Zealand. Finland received a wild card to play at that event.

The other Finnish players expected to be at this year's World Cup are younger and have less experience on the international stage, yet they did have the chance to play at the EuroBasket and log important minutes against world-class players.

"I think eight players had their first opportunity to play in this kind of tournament," Tuovi said. So during the tournament and after with their club seasons, they will be more and more ready (for the World Cup)."

As for competing in the Group Phase in Okinawa, Tuovi can hardly wait. 

The 2014 World Cup in Bilbao had a Finnish invasion with 10,000 Susijengi fans supporting the team in Spain

"Definitely, it's such an interesting culture," he said. "And since we were there during COVID (the pandemic) with our challenger national team a few summers ago.  I don't know who, but some of the (Finland) players have been in Okinawa before. It's a funny fact that they played against Japan before during this challenger tournament.

"It was a men's national team tournament with Belgium and Japan. They were with their veteran players.

"They (Japan) had Watanabe and their other players. and we had a younger group but now those players are the core of our national team."

How many teams can win?

Dettmann, who added Tuovi to his national team coaching staff more than a decade ago and had him draw up plays during important timeouts at the 2014 World Cup, says this summer's event is going to be extra special.

Tuovi (left) was Dettmann's (right) assistant but now holds the reins of the Susijengi 

"It's going to be the best World Cup ever," he said. "It's going to be the best basketball tournament ever and there are a lot of good teams."

Can Finland survive the group of death and make a deep run? Can they dream of winning it all?

"Two teams that we are playing (Germany and Australia) can go very far," he said. "There is always USA, there is always Spain, but you know that in these competitions there are Cinderellas and this is our goal, to be one of the Cinderellas."