(photo credit: AP)
Israel's national basketball team on Thursday embarks on a 17-day tour spanning four countries, three opponents and six games that will determine if it qualifies for the Eurobasket 2007.
The team will face Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Portugal, playing each team home and away over the next two-and-a-half weeks. The top two teams in the group will automatically advance to the European championship, while the teams finishing in the third and fourth places get one more chance to qualify in a last chance tournament next summer.
Israel "hosts" Bosnia on Thursday at its temporary home of Sofia, Bulgaria, after an appeal by the Israel Basketball Association to allow the national team to host its upcoming games in Israel was turned down by FIBA earlier in the week.
As well as dealing with the difficulty of playing his home games in "exile," coach Tzvika Sherf will also have to cope with an injury-ravaged squad. Maccabi Tel Aviv star Tal Burstein was hurt in the last game of the 2005/06 BSL season and never even joined the national team training sessions. Veterans Gur Shelef and Meir Tapiro also failed to come through Sherf's training camp, with Lior Eliyahu the final casualty after injuring his knee during the team's final preparations this week.
"We need to concentrate on who we have and not who is missing," Sherf said at Ben-Gurion Airport before flying out to the team's first qualifier. "In sport, you have to deal with injuries and now we need to put them aside. The players that are flying out are the best we have right now and they will need to get the job done."
Without three of its veterans, the success of the team will be resting on the shoulders of Yotam Halperin. The 22-year-old guard is in the middle of determining his personal basketball future, but will need to put everything aside for the next 17 days if he is to guide the team to Eurobasket 2007. Halperin, who is deciding whether or not to sign a contract offered by the Seattle Supersonics, has been Israel's leading player in its recent training matches and will be a crucial part of the team's success.
"Despite all the injuries, we have had good preparation," Halperin said. "We have a good team and I believe that if we get through the first two games successfully, then we will have taken a big step towards first place in the group."
Joining Halperin in the backcourt will be guards Raviv Limonad, Lior Lubin, Dror Hagag and new captain Erez Katz. "The Bosnians are on paper the toughest team that we will need to play," Katz commented before leaving for Sofia. "We want to win this game and then concentrate on the remaining matches."
The Bosnians are guided by 38-year-old coach Nenad Markovic, who is well known to Israeli basketball fans after starring as a player for Hapoel Tel Aviv in the mid '90s. Markovic has a talented squad that is highlighted by American born Henry Domercant. The team also includes Jasmin Hukic, Damir Mrsic and youngster Mirza Teletovic, who has recently returned from injury.
"Bosnia is a much tougher team than I had thought," Israel center Yaniv Green revealed after watching video of his opponents. "They have excellent players who play in the best teams in Europe. We will have to prepare very well because this is our home game and we must win it."
Green will be complemented in the frontcourt by Sharon Shason, Matan Naor and Guy Pnini, while the big men are Ido Kozikaro, Jamie Arnold, Erez Markovic and Amit Tamir.
The team's main objective against Bosnia will be to slow down the visitors' offense. "We have to play a very good defensive game", Sherf stressed. "We have to play a sensible game and must be tactically disciplined. Those are the keys for this game."
One more important key will be the play of Israel's new big man, the American-born Arnold. The 31-year-old was superb in the training games and gives the team a much needed presence underneath the basket.
"The time is now," Arnold declared before going to Bulgaria. "Bosnia is the toughest team in the group apart from us. Obviously, the injuries are hurting us but we will continue to be one unit and fight as one unit."
The national team faces what could be an exhausting 17 days on the road. Israel will leave Sofia on Friday after its "home" game against Bosnia and travel by bus to Macedonia for its second qualifier on Saturday night. The team will then return to Israel for one day before flying out to Bulgaria to host Portugal on September 6.
Three days later, the team will play Bosnia in Sarajevo and then return to Israel once again for a day's rest. After 24 hours at home, the team plans to return to Sofia for its last "home" game against Macedonia on September 13 and, finally, will travel to Portugal for its last game on the 16th.