29 June, 2021
04 July
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Don't count them out: Pitino-led Greece team showing promise

VICTORIA (Canada) - Rick Pitino gauged outside expectations for his Greece national team. Survey says: Low.

That doesn’t necessarily reflect Pitino’s opinion.

The coach has won a lot of basketball games during his Hall of Fame career that’s included stops in NCAA Division I, the NBA, EuroLeague and national teams, so to expect anything less would be uncharacteristic - even given the obstacles he and the Greeks have been dealt. Injuries, schedule conflicts, retirements and other circumstances created some last-minute roster and strategy shuffling. Factor in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament’s strict bubble and limited pre-tournament prep and practice time - challenges all six teams here faced - and Greece wasn’t on many radars as tournament sleepers, much less favorites.

Yet they’re one of four teams still standing after going 1-1 in the Group Phase. They play Turkey on Saturday in the Semi-Finals. Only one team from the tournament qualifies for the Summer Olympics.

“I think right now, not much is expected because I’ve had so many problems,” Pitino said before the tournament. “We’ve had so many injuries.”

Among Greece’s absences: Two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is amid a deep playoff run with the Milwaukee Bucks. Vassilis Spanoulis, a Greek basketball legend, planned to join his countrymen in Victoria, but got injured shortly before the OQT. He later announced his retirement.

There are other key players who aren’t here for Greece. But 12 players are here, each one hand-picked by Pitino to play on the international stage.

“It may not be the best 12 guys in Greece, but I felt they would have the best camaraderie, the best attitude,” Pitino said after Thursday’s 105-80 win against China. “I tried to get 12 guys like that, that just bought into the team, just bought into the name on the front, didn’t care about the name on the back. And I think they’ve shown that in two games.”

He’s right. Eleven players have scored in each of Greece’s two games. They’ve dished out 50 assists on 71 made field goals. They also lead the field with a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio and an efficiency rating of 244.

What Greece might lack in talent is supplanted by a passion and winning mentality Pitino has fostered.

“In the beginning of the preparation, when we all gathered together and we learned about all the injuries about the important players that would’ve come, we were shocked, because they would play a major role for our team,” Greece’s Konstantinos Mitoglou said. “Coach Pitino gathered us all together and he said, ‘Listen guys, that’s it. We are the ones. I believe in you guys. You have to believe in me. We can make it, we’re going to find a way to make it.’

“So we believe in ourselves and we’re going to fight for everything.”

Mitoglou also played for Pitino at Panathinaikos, one of Greece’s top professional teams. He chuckled a bit when asked about the coach’s high expectations - “coach is never happy, to be honest with you” - he joked after the win against China.

But Mitoglou respects that passion for greatness. It’s necessary pressure to put on a national team that hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since 2008.

“He brought the winning mentality, something that there wouldn’t be with all these absences we’ve had, with all these injuries we’ve had,” Mitoglou said. “He wants to bring a physical team, fast tempo and a winning mentality. That’s what matters for him.”

Pitino has won NCAA titles and Greek League championships. Qualifying for the Olympics would be another bolded item on a long list of achievements - and might be the most unlikely of all.