After defending champions Punjab were defeated by Karnataka at the ongoing 71st Senior National Basketball Championships, the crowd was in shock. One of them equally taken aback from this motley crowd, was the head coach of the Indian national basketball team, Veselin Matic.
Arriving in 2017, the coach undertook the long project of changing the way the Indian team should play and invested in developing the players of the various states. Coach Toza's vision has borne some sweet fruits as the Indian team has experienced the rise of some really promising young players in Princepal Singh, Sahaij Singh Sekhon, Pranav Prince and many more.
In fact, Matic expects more young talent to come through in the coming time to start a new chapter in the history of Indian basketball. This year, India plays FIBA Asia Cup and Asian Games, and the senior nationals are the first step towards the preparation for these tournaments.
Ahead of the major tournaments, Coach Matic sat with The Bridge and shared his in-depth views on the tournaments and the talent of basketball in India:
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
1. The Bridge (TB): What are your thoughts on the national championships till now?
Veselin Matic (VM): The games which I saw today were not at par with the ones I saw in Ludhiana. All the games were down. Perhaps the fatigue coming up after four day may be the cause, it is difficult to say. All the teams are not playing the way they played on the first day, only Tamil Nadu has maintained the level.
2. TB: What are your thoughts on Karnataka's form?
VM: What we have observed from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka is that they have a mixed the team with experienced and young players, but that is the way other teams have to design themselves as well.
There are a lot of young players in the tournament and also some players are missing. For the Junior Nationals in Rajasthan, Lokendra and Digvijay were the stand out players but now we don't see them in the team, that too when the team is in the top 16.
Also for the Services, Rajeev was not in the team or they might have looked like a totally different team. Several teams have given chance to young players, but they didn't have enough time to prepare themselves.
Two years of the COVID shows a lot needs to be improved, due to covid no one had the chance to play games or tournaments and you can see that the players are not ready.
You can see it from the fifth day of the game that players are not conditioned properly. The defence looks weak, teams are scoring a lot of points not due to individual quality but due to the bad quality of defence. That is my opinion.
3. TB: How do you feel about the basketball schedule? Do you think there is more focus on the 3v3 side of the game rather than 5v5 tournaments?
VM: No, I won't agree to this. We'll never focus on 3v3, it is a sub-discipline of the game of basketball, although it gives a great chance.
If you see the last Olympics, the teams which are are not so high in FIBA rankings are very high in 3v3, especially Belgium, who couldn't qualify for European Championships, Russia as well ranks high in 3v3.
So there are countries who are not high on FIBA rankings but in 3v3 they have a chance. It is also a very good chance for India, that initiatives like 3BL and INBL where players will get points due to which we can get the qualification.
Look at Sri Lanka, they played more tournaments than we did and organised more tournaments than us and so they qualified for the CWG. That is something we have to focus on.
Even earlier Secretary Chandramukhi reminded us that from 70th ranking we are now 15th, which is something we are really optimistic about. Plus, we know that 3v3 and 5v5 will give the young player more chances to play the game.
4. TB: There is professionalism in 3v3 tournaments where players are paid, do you feel there needs to be the same in 5v5?
VM: That is what INBL is going to do, we have one paid professional league in Mizoram, everybody knows how well they have organised the league and it shows we need more small leagues so that the players can play professionally.
I think it's not only about a player being paid, players want to be professional and want to play games, that is one of the reasons we need more of these types (Senior National) of competition.
In the last two years, we had fewer All-India level tournaments, so if a league starts then it will be really good. A professional league is welcome in India, and because of that professionalism of the player will be much much better.
However, there are a lot of national team competitions already so we cannot have more things in it, like 3BL. It was scheduled just before the Senior Nationals which did not allow players to prepare properly for this tournament. But overall such tournaments are good for the promotion and development of the game of basketball.
5. TB: Are there any players you feel should be called up for the Indian camp? Are any players on your radar?
VM: For sure, in any tournament, you find new talent and everybody knows we don't choose only 16 players, we are making opportunities for everyone. With hard work maybe one day in future they will make their own place and add to the quality part of the Senior National team.
Fom this tournament, there will be more names more young players and some mid-age players who will join the national camp after that we will see.
6. TB: The template of using a good mix of young and experienced players is seen in some of these teams as you have mentioned have done the same. So are we looking for a big overhaul in the national team?
VM: That is my mission in India. It is my third year in India and COVID slowed down this process of growth. But my mission here is players born after 2004-2005 will help in making a completely new team that will represent India in a good way. Also in the same period, we will try to prepare in the best possible manner.
This new brood of NextGen players will need to work hard if they need to be competitive in Asia and play against top Asian teams and then sometimes taste a win too.
In future, if you want to play against China, Korea, the Philippines, Iran, New Zealand; you need to start winning in the youth category and come to the Asain level so that after four years or five years when this generation comes to Senior National team they have the experience to win.
There are two ways, one is youth and the other is seniors, who need to make a place for the new players, the youth needs to fight for their place on the national side. But also for this, we have a problem, a lot of young players are going to American colleges and our competition comes in November, February, and June. That is the time when they are playing for the colleges and they won't allow it.
7. TB: Players going to colleges in America, playing in high ranked institutions, is this a sign of having a good quality of players?
VM: Yeah, but will these good quality players come back or not is a question. That is what happened with Satnam Singh, he went to the United States, he tried to play NBA and after that now he went to wrestling. He came back here and unfortunately he finds out he is suspended for doping and then he decides to choose another sport. This may happen with other players because going another way to develop.
For sure, we cannot stop the development and we need to make more opportunities for more players. For now, we need to search for good players and one of the most important steps towards that is the Khelo India University. We have full support from the Federation about this.
Another important thing is we need to be in the primary sporting group in India, where we'll have the priority of the government which can help us in conducting practice throughout the year.
8. TB: So what we understand is when you say 2004, or 2005 you are talking about the new era of young players?
VM: Yes, from 2024 or 2025, that will commence the new era for Indian basketball. That means India needs to be ready to play for the top-8 team in Asia. Top-8 means you can be eighth, fourth, or second, that is something you need to be prepared for.
The big problem is that were the top-10 countries in Asia but now are in top-25, and every country is ready to give citizenship to any good international player. We in India don't have any chance, OCI players can't play for India.
They don't have an Indian passport but just a travel visa and these players can't help us, and it is not easy for foreign people not to get a passport.
Another is that according to FIBA rules you can nationalise some players and give them passports to play for you. In India, it is not possible because of the rules of the State.
9. TB: What are your expectations for the upcoming international games we are going to play?
VM: We need to be in a process of involving more and more young players in the senior team, more of them have to be given the chance to be on the court and then, as a result, we will try to play the best we can.
We have a very difficult group, we have three of the top-8 Asian teams in Lebanon, the Philippines and New Zealand, which is very difficult. It is better that we prepare and have good expectations as well as good exposure. This can be a preparation for the qualification for the Asia Cup Championship 2025.