Israel gears up for qualifiers vs Spain, Poland

Atop group, Katash’s blue-and-white has chance to clinch EuroBasket berth with pair of victories

ISRAEL WILL have former NBA player Gal Mekel running the point for its pair of EuroBasket qualifiers against Spain and Portland in Valencia this weekend. (photo credit: DOV HALICKMAN PHOTOGRAPHY)
ISRAEL WILL have former NBA player Gal Mekel running the point for its pair of EuroBasket qualifiers against Spain and Portland in Valencia this weekend.
The Israel National Basketball Team returns to action this weekend with EuroBasket qualifying games against Spain on Saturday and Poland on Monday.
The blue-and-white will be playing the pair of contests in Valencia, Spain, where FIBA has set up a bubble for a number of teams to play in due to the recent surge of confirmed coronavirus cases throughout Europe.
The two games were originally supposed to be played in Israel in front of a partisan crowd, but now Oded Katash’s team will need to play against the pair of European powerhouses on the road with no fans present.
Israel currently sits in first place with a record of 2-0 in its qualification group, which also includes Romania, and will look to rack up two more wins to put it in prime position to punch its ticket to the premier continental competition, which is slated for 2022.
Katash’s squad is comprised of 15 players from Israel and abroad and includes a number of first timers as well as veterans.
Captain Gal Mekel will lead the team along with alternate captain Guy Pnini, while Jake Cohen, Tomer Ginat and Rafi Menco round out the veteran presence.
Yam Madar, who was just selected by the Boston Celtics in this month’s NBA Draft, will also be on the team along with Idan Zalmanson, Nimrod Levi, Tamir Blatt, Golan Gutt and Iftach Ziv, all of whom have played for the blue-and-white in the past.
Newcomers to the team include Ben Carter, Noam Dovrat, Netanel Artzi and Roman Sorkin.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s players are not available for the pair of games due to Euroleague matches, while Deni Avdija who was just selected ninth overall in the NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards, will be at the team’s training camp in the United States.
Israel Basketball Association Chairman Amiram HaLevy was excited and cautiously optimistic about the upcoming games.
“We want to see the senior national team do as well as the younger teams have done in the recent past with two Under-20 European Championships. There is potential here and we want to reach that potential as we continue to grow.
“This is a challenging campaign for the Israel National Team and our goal is to win every game. I am a big believer in the young Israeli basketball players and we want to give them the platform to show that they are capable of helping us.”
Katash, the team’s head coach, also looked at the challenges ahead inclusion having to play in Spain.
“The coronavirus has been very challenging for us and these should have been two home games. Now we are playing Spain in Spain, which should have been a home game. Don’t get me wrong, though, we’re happy that we are playing basketball and we can’t take that for granted.
“We are short on preparation time, but every team is in the same boat so we have to see how we will integrate some of the new players while keeping our base. The decision to continue to bring in younger players over the past three years is ongoing and some may get significant minutes, but most importantly is that we do things slowly but surely.”
Katash is also very happy to have the services of his veteran floor general available for the weekend.
“I’m also content that Gal Mekel, who had been injured recently, will be with us for this window of games. We have to see how the other teams come into this bubble and which players will take part for them. Hopefully, we will be able to have a successful pair of games and that we can bring back good results.”
Mekel is always ready to give it his all when representing his country and is also familiar with the bubble setup in Valencia.
“I am doing well and have practiced with my club team Malaga for the past week after having a small injury,” said the 32-year-old guard. “They gave me permission to join the National Team and be a part of these game. I’ve already been in the bubble in Valencia when we finished the ACB season back in July and it will be a lot of fun for these two games.”
Alternate captain and veteran sharp-shooter Pnini, 37, also commented on the upcoming clashes.
“We have a big challenge ahead of us. We’ll go into the bubble where we are playing two home games which should have been a pair of clashes in front of our fans with us in Israel. But this is the current situation and we have to handle this the best possible way in order for us to record the best results. For myself, it’s great to be a part of the national team with a number of younger players as we move into the next generation of Israeli players.”
The 19-year-old Madar, who will remain in Israel this season as opposed to playing for the Celtics, can’t wait to get going with the National Team as he looks to make his mark in blue-and-white.
“I hope that we can prepare as best as possible and that we will be ready for this exciting challenge,” exclaimed Madar. “The main job will be to make sure that we are used to playing with each other which will determine how we will do in these upcoming games. We have a talented group of players and if we can come together as one we have a serious chance to do some really special things.