Meesseman: Are the Belgian Cats heading into the unknown?
ISTANBUL (Turkey) - Fresh from winning a fifth EuroLeague Women title and being crowned season MVP, Emma Meesseman will soon turn her attention to continuing the majestic rise of the Belgian national team.
The Fenerbahce Alagoz Holding forward has been the driving force behind a stunning six years for the Cats on the international stage and they will be looking to make a splash again at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2023.
"I FEEL THAT SPAIN AND FRANCE ARE STILL THE NUMBER ONE TEAMS AND AS FOR US, I REALLY CAN'T SAY WHERE WE'RE GOING TO END UP." - Meesseman
In 2017, after a lengthy absence, they burst back onto the Final Round scene in style with a historic first bronze medal. Also taking a maiden ticket to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, they impressed with their incredible style of basketball and made the Semi-Finals.
An Olympic debut then came in Tokyo, just weeks after a second bronze medal at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 when Meesseman came up with some scorching displays.
But things then changed.
To the surprise of many, long-serving head coach Philip Mestdagh departed and Valery Demory took charge for the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2022 - only to be subsequently replaced by current playcaller Rachid Meziane.
Throw in the fact that experienced contributors such as Kim Mestdagh, Ann Wauters and Marjorie Carpreaux have retired and it has left questions to be answered. Not least, what the realistic expectations of Belgium should be when the plane wheels touch down in Tel Aviv for the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2023 Group Phase.
"It's been a lot for us lately and one of our strengths had always been continuity for the Cats - one of the reasons why we came where we came," mused Meesseman, when considering the changes since the 2021 edition.
"It's not a completely new coach for us because he was there as an assistant and everyone knew him already. I do think this coach fits the team very well in terms of how he is as a person. He is there for basketball of course, but he is always there for personal stuff on the side of the court which is important. He really fits well with the staff and with communication.
The younger generation is now on the court more regularly for the Cats
"So, we will have to see because with all due respect, our qualification games were relatively easy and so we need to see how we do against the real top teams.
"Looking between back then and how we are now, it's very difficult to assess because it is two very different teams. We were dominating some opponents back then.
"For example, we lost against Serbia the champions in the last Semi-Finals and we knew they were not better than us in that moment. It was just us giving it away and that is not how you want to lose a game. You only want to lose against somebody who is just better.
"Really, everything has changed so much it's so hard to predict - especially as we have so many players still coming up," she added.
It's true that there is a new-look feel to the Cats. Players such as Maxuella Lisowa-Mbaka, Billie Massey and Becky Massey are starting to establish themselves and even younger players like Nastja Claessens are pushing hard for inclusion.
An All-Star Five member in 2017 and 2021 when winning bronze, as well as the team that shone at the Worlds in Tenerife during 2018, Meesseman is such a colossus that people will still potentially have Belgium down as medal contenders again based merely on her presence along.
But the player herself is adamant that the Cats are heading into an unknown - not only because of the new chapter they're living through, but also because of how unpredictable this year's edition in Israel and Slovenia is looking.
Meesseman said: "For this year I agree it is wide open, but with certain teams still up there and others being the underdogs. I feel that Spain and France are still the number one teams and as for us, I really can't say where we're going to end up. This is because qualification games are not at the level of the Final Found.
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"I have to see in the friendly games coming up if we belong with these top level teams again, because at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket itself, you never know what it will be like.
"Our motto has always been step by step. I can only say what our first goal will be and that will be the first game - simply making sure we are there and well prepared for it," she concluded.
Meesseman and the Cats will compete in Group B alongside Czech Republic, Italy and co-hosts Israel.