With four weeks of hard graft behind them, Great Britain’s women have left their training camp in Stirling and headed for Bulgaria for the start of an extensive schedule of warm-up games ahead of their Eurobasket qualifiers.
Tom Maher’s status update? “We’ve made a lot of progress,” the Australian declared.
But there is still much to do between now and GB’s competitive opener against Slovakia on August 14. More good habits to instil, he says. More details to fine tune. And further gears to find to compete at a level that might give the side an opportunity to surprise their group rivals and earn the kind of respectability required to put their Olympic Games place beyond question.
The carrot of being in London 2012 – as much as Lithuania 2011 – looms large for a group that was relegated to Division B earlier this year before earning a surprise reprieve to remain in Europe’s top level.
“We want to prove that we belong there,” states centre Sarah McKay. “Some people in FIBA might agree with us which we why we’re still there but we want to prove that we deserve it.
“We have to show everyone that we belong as a team. We got lucky by re-instated into Division A and we realise that’s a blessing. And so we need to use that our advantage and step up a notch.”
Maher, along with assistants Ken Shields and Vanessa Ellis, have spent a lot of time on the basics during their two-a-day practices. More, in truth, than any of the trio would have liked.
The varying backgrounds of a squad drawn from everywhere from the USA to the EBL has meant that the integration process has been slow. The Australian, both on and off the court, pulls few punches. Britain is starting from a few steps behind its international counterparts. It will take more than a month to catch up.
“It’s ongoing,” he confirmed. “Why Australia kicked up from the middle of the pack to the top four was that legacy from one camp to another. They put a few years together and kept building. And the new players who came in learnt from the ones who were there before. It’s a quicker way of teaching that than just coaching it, where the players teach each other informally.
“We’re not a team who can consider ourselves an All Star team that just comes together. We have to establish a skillset that is ingrained as a habit. And if you do it as a national team, you hope that the clubs and coaches below will adopt that as a style or technique. And the coaches will borrow from it so you can maximise your growth under the national side. In that way, the younger kids who come up, their basketball IQ progresses because of better teaching.”
Britain’s squad is overwhelmingly youthful. And that inexperience won’t be easy to overcome, even for a coach who has two Olympic medals in his drawer as well as the knowledge gained from stints with China, New Zealand and the WNBA. The players are adjusting, slowly. “Last summer was a short programme, just three weeks,” Mackay points out.
“So we only got a small feel for him. We didn’t have any serious competitive games as a senior team. The university team had a few games but it’s nice to feel him out properly as a coach and see what he wants from his system.”
Maher demands a lot. And his charges are keen to impress. So far Mackay, Kim Butler and Azania Stewart look the front-runners to form the frontcourt with Rose Anderson and Johanna Leedham as the starting guards. Two more cuts will be made before the qualifiers. Injuries may yet factor in but the rotation is far from set.
“The thing is that I think we can put a good starting five out who can compete,” Maher appraises. “But there are a couple of defensive holes in that. That’s a real worry. The easy fix is to say ‘we won’t start this person because we’ve got a better defender on the bench’. But we don’t.
“So we’re not anywhere near a stage where we can lock up a team or where we know we can have a great day by scoring 90 points because we know we can hold the other team under 70. Certainly against the top ten teams in the world, we’d be in trouble.”
For the optimists, it is a rude reality check. “But that’s where we are,” he adds. “We have to take time to develop. But we can’t leak points early. We have to make them graft and make them work hard in the first quarter.”
Three games against the Bulgarians this weekend in Pravets will see where GB stands. In truth, the hard work for Maher and his team starts now.