Hapoel TA coach Oded Katash.
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Israel coach Oded Katash returns to the scene of one of his greatest achievements when the blue-and-white visits Greece in 2019 FIBA World Cup action in Crete on Monday.
It was just a little over four months ago that Katash surprisingly led Israel’s under-20 national team to the final of the European Championship at the Dyo Aorakia Arena in Heraklion, Crete, equaling the team’s best-ever finish in the tournament from 2000 and 2004.
A 65-56 loss to Greece ended the blue-and-white’s hopes of claiming the title for the first time, but Katash’s roster greatly exceeded all expectations by simply making the final.
Katash will be back in Heraklion on Monday with Israel’s senior side, aiming to move to 2-0 in Group H with what could prove to be a crucial win down the road.
Israel beat Estonia 88-68 in its opener in Tel Aviv on Friday, while Greece edged Great Britain 95-92 in overtime in Leicester.
Israel should have little problem advancing to the second round considering three of the four teams will progress after six games each. But with all results from the first qualification round to be carried over to the second round, a road victory against an undermanned Greece team may well ultimately prove decisive.
The top three in the second round, which will be played between September 2018 and February 2019 and will be comprised of four groups of six teams, will secure a berth in the World Cup.
Defeating one of European basketball’s traditional powerhouses on the road would usually be regarded as an almost impossible mission for Israel.
But with the new format of qualification meaning most NBA and Euroleague players will only be available to play in games to be held during the off-season, Israel will be facing a second, even third-string, Greece team on Monday night.
The only player who was part of the Greece team in last summer’s EuroBasket tournament and also played against Great Britain was Ioannis Bourousis, who had 27 points and eight rebounds in Friday’s win. Bourousis will not face Israel as he returned to China where he plays for Zhejiang Lions.
However, Greece’s roster will be bolstered by Nick Calathes, Thanasis Antetokounmpo and Ian Vougioukas, who joined the team after missing Friday’s game to help Panathinaikos to a Euroleague win over Real Madrid last Thursday.
The only player Israel is really missing is Golden State Warriors forward Omri Casspi, but the blue-and-white can hardly complain considering the Greeks will be without their four NBA players, including Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“There is no doubt that if Greece had all its Euroleague players it is one of the strongest teams in Europe, and they are also missing one of the best three players in the world,” said Katash, who has a long history with Greece having led Panathinaikos to the Euroleague title in 2000.
“But playing Greece on the road, regardless of the players they have, is always a tough task. We have a chance to register a big win, but we are not the favorites.
“If we play like we did in the first half against Estonia we don’t have a chance. But if we play like we did in the second half, we can win.”On TV: FIBA World Cup qualifying:
Greece vs Israel (live on Sport5 at 5 p.m.)