31 August, 2017
17 September
Igor Kokoskov (SLO), Slovenia v Kosovo (Photo: Ales Fevzer)
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Kokoskov convinces Slovenia it’s all about the game, not the name

LJUBLJANA (FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers) – Slovenia head coach Igor Kokoskov has managed to bridge concepts that seem incompatible throughout his career and his maiden campaign in charge of the 'Junaki' has seen him use this skill to steer them to a four-game winning streak in Group E of the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers.

"I always say ‘don’t bring your name, bring your game’. You might have the big names but whoever you play, you have to prove on the court that you are the favourite." - Kokoskov

The Slovenian side will punch their ticket to the big event as early as Wednesday night in the case they beat Bulgaria at home and results elsewhere go their way. The Serbian-American tactician, who is also an assistant to coach Quin Snyder at Utah Jazz, visited with FIBA.com on the eve of the potentially decisive game.

FIBA.com: Bulgaria are out of the qualifying race, they are coming to Slovenia without Alexander Vezenkov and Stanimir Marinov, you had defeated them in the reverse fixture at their home and you will be tempted to keep an eye on results elsewhere. How do you avoid the risk of your players becoming complacent or losing focus on Wednesday?
Kokoskov: Ours is a new team, we have a lot of young guys and an average age of 23.7 years, there is no calculation on our side when we are preparing a game. Whoever we play, we look to play hard and with a high level of intensity and focus. We're not thinking about the last game, we're not thinking about any other games, we're not thinking about who is playing or who is not going to play. We're just approaching the next game as if it's the most important game of the summer, we're going to take it one quarter at a time and our goal is to find a way to win it. I assume the guys know but we're not adding pressure by talking about this game as if it were a final.

FIBA.com: Speaking of the young players, the Slovenian federation (KZS) assigned you the double task of steering the national team to FIBA EuroBasket 2017, but also building a team for the future, are you satisfied with what you saw from the youngsters in this campaign?
Kokoskov: As a national team coach you have to think strategically about where this team is going to be in a couple of years, but in the meantime you have to win games. This summer is very important for the Slovenian national team, aiming to keep ourselves on the big stage by qualifying to EuroBasket, but also looking at the big picture and plan for the future. We have some young guys now, we hope to add more youngsters both next year and in two years’ time and create a bridge between the current crop and the next generation. That is the strategic plan we have laid out with KZS President Matej Erjavec and Secretary General Raso Nesterovic. Generally speaking, I am pleased with this group and we have a couple more young guys whom we think were not ready yet this summer but could be on the team next year.

"Modern basketball is winning basketball. The winner dictates what good basketball is." - Kokoskov

FIBA.com: Your team has averaged 92.8 points in the first four games, is this offensive-minded, up-tempo game the style of play that Kokoskov’s Slovenia will have? Is this your stamp on Slovenia?
Kokoskov: You cannot be stubborn, you have to be flexible, accept the group the way they are and then add your own philosophy, or your personality. I always say that modern basketball is winning basketball. The winner dictates what good basketball is. If for example you want to be fast but you don't have the horses to run that race, then you need to slow down. Luckily one of the strengths of this team is that we have wings and guards who can run and play up-tempo, especially with Goran Dragic who's played at the Suns for years and that's his nature. I've worked in different styles, I was at the Phoenix Suns when we played with Steve Nash and I've been at Detroit Pistons when we only played half-court offence.

FIBA.com: You have no preference then between '7 seconds or less' and long possessions?
Kokoskov: As long as we win, I don't mind. The fans want to see the team win games. I don't want to play fast and lose the game, I guess I wouldn't last long as a coach. I am of course happy that we had some high-scoring games, because the fans enjoy it and this team is about playing up-tempo, so I have followed the lead that came from the players, accentuating the strengths and covering weaknesses.

FIBA.com: Considering that no Slovenian fan would forgive failure in the Qualifiers, do you think that your team's campaign is given enough credit? Does the fact favourites in other groups suffered upsets give more merit to your winning run?
Kokoskov: There are no favourites in qualification, it is a really difficult process, no matter how it looks from the outside. You have to have the guys healthy, you have to have guys who are motivated to spend two months together and play these games. I always say 'don't bring your name, bring your game'. You might have the big names but whoever you play, you have to prove on the court that you are the favourite. So from that point of view it is a challenging summer because the last time Slovenia had to play Qualifiers was almost 10 years ago, but we have to accept that although we are not playing the prime-time teams everybody in Europe is playing basketball and you have to go to Bulgaria or Kosovo and play very well, there is no such thing as an easy win. We have to accept the fact that the league in Slovenia has to get better, it has weaknesses that affect the national team. For many years it produced young players, but nowadays teams do not have the same stability. We have to look at these things and try to improve while maintaining the national team on its high level.