Jeff Taylor's Eurovision
to read

Latvia must use World Cup as a springboard

VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - It was too good to be true.

How many times can you say that about a country at the FIBA Basketball World Cup that didn't get to the podium?

But it's spot-on for Latvia, who overcame the loss of Kristaps Porzingis and Dairis Bertans to injuries, almost upset now World Champs Germany in the Quarter-Finals and ultimately beat Baltic brothers Lithuania on September 9 in Manila to clinch fifth place.

Latvia, who didn't qualify for the 2019 World Cup or EuroBasket 2022, finished fifth!

And they were greeted to a heroes' reception back in Riga because of it.


Now a must for Latvia is to consolidate, or to use the 2023 World Cup as a springboard to reach new heights.

They will take part in EuroBasket 2025 Qualifiers beginning in February, and they will also compete in one of next year's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments.

Latvia can still make it to France for the Summer Games, and the way coach Luca Banchi - best coach in the World Cup - sees it, they will be in the running.

"It's easy and special to coach them," he said. "Every day they have the ability to give me more energy, enthusiasm and desire because they are very demanding. They need to be coached."

The mindset, the focus, the humility. Latvia have it.

And they have had it since Banchi arrived, to coach the team in the European Qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup.

Latvia, as never before, play exceptionally well the past two years. They built chemistry, a system, a real team, which is essential in modern basketball.

The countries, and the clubs that find success, are those that play as teams.

When there are international windows, the countries that are successful are the ones that have the players that carry that mindset into practice and into the qualifying games.

The qualifiers are an opportunity to create an identity, a system.

Spain used the windows to build a championship-winning mindset and identity for FIBA EuroBasket 2022.

International basketball saw it happen again with Latvia.



Essentially, the players bought in.

They believed in the idea that the sum is greater than the whole of its parts. If they played smart, played together and played hard, then they could compete with anyone.

Latvia finished top of Group I in the European Qualifiers with nine wins and just one defeat! That one loss came on opening day, a 101-100 setback at Serbia in Belgrade.

Banchi had everyone on the same page in the European Qualifiers, in training camp before the World Cup and during the competition itself.

"We talked many times about this, staying humble, continue to generate improvements," Banchi said.

"The team is on a good path to continue, to have improvement, to keep Latvia at a high level."

For now, Latvia should enjoy their fifth place, and a rise to No. 8 in the FIBA World Ranking, presented by Nike.They climbed a whopping 22 spots to crack the top 10!

It wasn't supposed to happen after Porzingis was ruled out of the World Cup due to injury just days before the start of the event. Bertans' exit for the remainder of the tournament after logging just six minutes in the second game against France was supposed to be a death knell.

Andrejs Grazulis turned into a juggernaut at the World Cup, leading the team in scoring and efficiency

They also lost incredibly important players to injury during the regular season before the World Cup in Janis Strelnieks and Rihards Lomazs.

Yet when Latvia showed up at the even in Jakarta, they were ready.

After beating Lebanon, they came back from a 13-point deficit in the second half to stun the French.

Latvia also won against the defending champs, Spain, in the Second Round after trailing by 12 with 11 minutes to go!

Next they beat Brazil to reach the Quarter-Finals.

Had the basketball gods smiled on Latvia  at the end of the last eight game against Germany when Davis Bertans put up a potential game-winning three-pointer, Banchi's team would have reached the Semi-Finals and qualified for the Olympics.

But Bertans, who hit a World Cup best 24 three-pointers, only drew iron and Germany escaped with an 81-79 victory. Both teams won out the rest of the way.

Germany defeated the USA 113-111 in the last four, and Serbia 83-77 in the Final, while Latvia beat Italy 87-82, and then thumped Lithuania in the battle for fifth place, 98-63.

No medal, yet plenty to like about Latvia's campaign, especially after they didn't qualify for either the 2019 World Cup, or FIBA EuroBasket 2022.

Zagars, who had a World Cup record 17 assists against Lithuania, was the revelation of the tournament

This group of players had self-belief, terrific execution and a determination to do things right. This Latvia team played hard. It expected to win, no matter the opponent.

"I had good vibes during the entire journey," Banchi said. "I would say from the very beginning of my arrival in Latvia, starting from the pre-qualification, trying to make them conscious of the potential of this program.

"Little by little, trying to achieve, we went through many different obstacles, no shortcuts. We beat teams like Serbia, Belgium, Greece, Turkey and arriving here with probably the most difficult group."

Banchi made tough decisions, cutting out-of-form veterans Janis Timma and Mareks Mejeris.

He showed a cool head after losing Porzingis and Bertans. Latvia instead got career-defining performances from Arturs Zagars, who led the World Cup in assists with 59 and also had a tournament record 17 against Lithuania.

Andrejs Grazulis (14.4ppg) and Rolands Smits (13.0ppg) provided scoring.

"We beat France, we competed with Canada, we beat Spain, Brazil in a do-or-die game," Banchi said.

The upset of France set the tone for a great Latvia World Cup campaign 

"And then this dramatic Quarter-Final with Germany ... it's unbelievable. Something difficult to describe, to imagine, but only because of their (the players') values, it happened."

This Latvia team touched a nerve.

"For all the people that sent so much love from Latvia, I want to dedicate this result to them," Banchi said after the win over Lithuania. "Because their passion, their love, their support - believe me - arrived so far away (in) Indonesia and Philippines."

This was Latvia's summer. The fans travelled in big numbers and also got excited from afar. They had an amazing connection with the team and the players raised their performance level because of it.

"We finished fifth, but I believe we deserved the gold because of the fans," Banchi said. "In this, we are world champions at least."

Jeff Taylor

FIBA's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA.

FIBA takes no responsibility and gives no guarantees, warranties or representations, implied or otherwise, for the content or accuracy of the content and opinion expressed in the above article. 

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor

Jeff Taylor, a North Carolina native and UNC Chapel Hill graduate, has been a journalist since 1990. He started covering international basketball after moving to Europe in 1996. Jeff provides insight and opinion every week about players and teams on the old continent that are causing a buzz.