A warm welcome to the second edition of The MVP Mail.
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In this issue, enjoy our exclusive interview with bright British prospect Evelyn Adebayo, get the thoughts of Great Britain head coach Chema Buceta on our next generation of female talents and what they need to do to make his squad.
We reveal who is coaching GB men against France and Germany next month. And report on a fracture between Scotland and the British Basketball Federation.
Plus how Covid has affected the BBL Trophy – and Surrey Scorchers’ boss Creon Raftopoulos. And learn how the home nations can qualify for the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
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Pulled by Huskies, Adebayo now cutting through
Few are the British starlets who have been able to scale the absolute heights of college basketball in the United States.
Just four players from the United Kingdom have featured in a Final Four with none yet helping to cut down the nets as a NCAA champion.
That could – perhaps should – have been a distinction allocated to Evelyn Adebayo last year.
The Londoner, poised to earn her second Great Britain cap against Belarus next week, was front and centre as the University of Connecticut made a familiar charge to a Conference championship and then geared up for their habitual tilt at reigning over Magic Madness.
Then: Covid. The post-season wiped out.
And Adebayo’s collegiate career, which concluded with a single campaign with the illustrious Huskies as a graduate transfer, arrived at the least satisfying of ends.
“It was kind of hard to sink into because we had just won the conference tournament,” the 1.88m forward reveals.
“Everyone's looking forward to March Madness. And it was my final year as a senior. I didn’t get another go-around. I'd waited five years to get to this point to potentially be in March Madness. There was that opportunity. And the season was just cut short.
“I was definitely disappointed for sure. But I mean, there's nothing we could do about it.”
Still, an accolade to merely be brought into the fold in Storrs where the best of the best have passed through over the past two decades as Geno Auriemma has presided over one of the great sporting dynasties of America.
Quite a journey for Adebayo, who was ushered into the sport by her PE teacher, first into Newham Youngbloods, then onto Haringey Angels and Barking Abbey Academy, before a three-stop spell in the States which also included classes at Gardener-Webb and Murray State.
“I had a year of eligibility left,” she recalls. “I thought: ‘I want to go somewhere where I can really test myself.’”
Auriemma, a little to her surprise, sent out a summons for a prolific rebounder. “I went for a visit around campus. You could see the banners and the photos. It was impressive.”
For a while, the reality matched the huge hype. “Sue Bird came to practice. We had a game against the USA which was incredible…the players that you meet.” A little intimidating, on occasion. “But I’ve always told myself to believe in myself and be ready to give everything.”
That self-assurance, she acknowledges, was ferociously tested. Auriemma, never one to pull punches, openly declared it could be a wasted year for the Brit before Christmas 2019 had even arrived.
Slipping out of his rotation, it was trying, Adebayo concedes. Nevertheless, valuable lessons were soaked up amid the gloom. A “best year” in many respects, even with the traumas of adapting to this unique basketball culture.
“It was more of a patience thing,” she says. “Just learning to be patient and to just keep grinding, keep working, no matter what.
“Even if things aren't going your way, you can't stop. You keep going.
“That also connects with how it is in the real world. A lot of things we do in basketball, during sports in general, translates to the real world.
“So it's like, no matter what, you just gotta keep going and have that mentality of like, ‘no, you can't stop, you gotta be patient, and you just got to keep working for what you want.’”
Undertaking a Masters in Sports Management, she informally picked up a Ph.D.’s worth of coaching education from the United States’ national team supremo.
To be of use in her future, the 24-year-old hints. Further seeds were sown when UConn assistant coach, Shea Ralph, persuaded his recruit to participate in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association programme: ‘So You Want To Be A Coach’, with one eye over the horizon.
More informally, every practice with Auriemma and his staff was a clinic in itself, she acknowledges.
“All the different styles in coaching and how together like they make this one great dynasty. But they’re also different in their coaching, techniques and tactics.
“So if coaching is something I want to get into after basketball, after playing, I also know how to approach different players. And obviously a thing that may work with one player may not work with everyone.
“Being able to be flexible and dynamic and always changing … I think that's a really big thing that that is needed for player development, for players in general.”
Courtesy of the global lockdown last summer, Adebayo was briefly stranded Stateside as she awaited offers to begin her professional career.
Eventually, she signed in Belgium for what turned out to be solely a pre-season with Phantoms before switching to Alcobendas, who play in the second division of Spain’s potent Liga Femenina.
“It's definitely good experience for sure,” she says of her time so far, having averaged 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
“You're playing against really good players, you learn a whole new different culture, language, etc. You're just experiencing new things. And seeing new things, making new teammates and memories.”
Beyond basketball, she has vowed to give back. Maybe centred upon her old stomping grounds in east London, perhaps on a different stage.
A club. A school academy. A common theme. “A place for kids where they can learn basketball and life skills at the same time,” she confirms.
A product of the Great Britain pyramid, capped upwards from Under-16 level and now into senior level, she spies further work to be done. To present others with the opportunities she was afforded, to open doors and create dreams as grand as the ones she realised on campus.
“Because there really is so much great talent in the UK,” Adebayo underlines.
“I think it is a matter of there being more opportunities ... more tournaments where players can get more exposure and seen.
“There can be more leagues created for them or more places for kids to show what they can do, and opportunities for them to like keep climbing the ladder and keep achieving success and get to higher levels.”
To Storrs, or even beyond.
Let’s talk about Holly
Holly Winterburn's continued absence from the Great Britain team, head coach Chema Buceta has confirmed, is down to one thing: defence.
Leicester Riders’ prodigious young guard returned to these shores last summer, following an abortive Stateside spell that saw her quit the glamorous outpost of the University of Oregon after a single season on scholarship.
Back in the WBBL, Winterburn is averaging 14.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game so far but was overlooked for the 12-person roster next Thursday’s vital EuroBasket qualifier against Belarus in Riga in favour of her club colleague Hannah Robb.
Baffling for some.
The 20-year-old is, however, on standby as one of two reserves for the game along with London Lions’ Paige Robinson.
But a regular senior role will only beckon under Buceta, the Spaniard signals, if the Riders’ tyro can fine-tune her game at both ends of the floor.
“You cannot play internationally unless you play very good defence,” he said. “And we need people who can play very good defence all the time. And I think she's a very good player in the offensive side of the court. But basketball is in both sides of the court - offence and defence.
“I am very optimistic about her. She is a nice girl. She wants to improve, she is ambitious. I think this is a great quality. And I see she wants to succeed. I'm quite happy to open the door for her in the future, if she continues to improve, especially in defence.”
That applies also to the next generation of players waiting in the wings with Buceta - who will give Shequila Joseph a first cap - aware that some rejuvenation will be necessary if GB is to take a concerted swing at qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics following their near-miss for Tokyo.
“We reached a very high level in the last campaign,” he added. “If we want to keep that now or in the future, we need people who really understand that it's not so easy to get a spot in the national team.
“You have to work hard, you have to play good defence and to be a team player. And I think this is the case for everybody.
“Not only for Hannah, for Shequila, but for other players now are in the States, like Savannah Wilkinson, or Gabby Nikitinaite, or a Paige Robinson who is playing now in Barking. Or Kennedy Leonard and Georgia Gayle.
“All these players are in our view of the future. But it's very important to understand that it's not enough just to be the top player in your class, you have to show that you can play at the international level, at a high level.
“And this is something for Holly and Hannah and Shequila, Chantelle Charles Evelyn Adebayo also. I mean, we are always needing players to play good defence, especially to keep our level high.”
Listen to a full interview with Chema Buceta in the MVP Cast next week. To subscribe, search ‘MVP Cast’ on your podcast platform or stream episodes online. The show is sponsored by Total Environmental Compliance.
A diplomatic row has broken out between Basketball Scotland and its British counterpart after a mass resignation of the Scots on its board.
The current chair of Basketball Scotland Stephen Ferguson, who quit in tandem with his colleague Doug Folan, has launched a stinging critique of the British Basketball Federation in the latest in a line of standoffs between the two organisations.
The BBF, whose role is largely limited to running international teams, has been effectively run in unison by the England, Scotland and Wales since a coup stripped it of its independence in 2018.
While relations between the home nations are understood to remain warm, ongoing concerns linger over the Lottery-funded structure which is to finance the Great Britain sides and the elite focus of the BBF which sits separate to grassroots development.
It all again threatens the fragile truce that followed the revisions of two years ago which were carried out with the stated intention of bringing the federation back under closer alignment.
However Ferguson now insists that “the strategic direction being taken by the BBF is one we cannot support and collaboration remains a challenge.”
He said: “Basketball Scotland will only reconsider putting forward a replacement nominated director to the BBF Board at a time when it is satisfied that there will be significant changes in terms of leadership, governance, respect for the voice of the membership, appreciation for the importance of youth player pathways, inclusive strategic thinking across the sport, a clear financial plan, an understanding of the vital role that culture plays in any modern organisation, and clear separation of executive and non-executive responsibilities in line with corporate governance good practice.”
It is understood a vocal grouping within Scottish clubs are in favour of petitioning FIBA to restore Scotland’s ability to fully enter international competitions as a separate nation to GB, an idea the global governing body has repeatedly insisted is a non-starter.
Ferguson said: “We continue to be a member of the BBF and to support our Home Country Association partners to deliver the GB age group teams, so that our Scottish players will have the opportunity to represent GB. We believe there is a need for inclusive leadership that fully understands the importance of collegiate working and strong governance.”
“Scotland is welcome to come to the board meetings and that position remains open,” said BBF interim chair Toni Minichiello.
“We’re disappointed that they have both chosen to step down but they will be welcomed back and continue to receive board minutes and an invite to meetings.”
Less than 18 months out from the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, clarity of sorts has emerged on the qualification process.
England, as hosts, will be guaranteed a berth in both the men’s and women’s 3x3 tournaments. No surprise there. But what of the rest of the UK?
The complexities of having a single Great Britain ranking when it comes to an event where the home countries compete separately were underlined in 2018.
Scotland’s men earned themselves an invite to the Gold Coast, but their women – plus Wales and Northern Ireland – were left out in the cold.
This time, rankings are set to come into play, MVP has learnt, and how GB sits will have a huge bearing on the fate of the Celts.
Great Britain are presently the 69th-ranked men’s nation in the FIBA rankings and 75th in the women. The working premise is that the top-ranked European country from within the Commonwealth at some to-be-determined date will receive a berth in Brum.
That position currently belongs to … GB. Should that continue, MVP has learnt that the proposal which has gained favour within FIBA is that the place would be allocated to a second “British” side.
And that would mean a play-in tournament between Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and any of the Channel Islands or any other outpost (Gibraltar anyone?) who can be roped in.
The complication, however, comes if GB is overtaken – with Cyprus a mere ten places adrift in the men’s table.
No-one is quite sure about what occurs in that scenario, and whether it would mean the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are left fully frozen out.
Reinking absent once more
Lest you were wondering if Nate Reinking would be on the sidelines for Great Britain’s crucial final two EuroBasket qualifiers against Germany and France next month in Montenegro, the answer is … no.
Again diverted by his NBA D-League duties with the Canton Charge – who are, in turn, confined to its bubble site in Florida – the return leg with the French on February 22 will be the sixth consecutive absence for the former GB international.
Although Reinking has been in direct phone contact with players ahead of finalising the squad for the double-header, Marc Steutel and Andreas Kapoulas will take charge on-site.
Following last November’s 74-59 win over the Montenegrins under Steutel, GB will likely book a trip to the Euro finals with one victory out of two with the Germans already assured of qualification as co-hosts.
The Covid fallout has claimed another victim. The BBL and WBBL Trophy finals will no longer be staged at Glasgow’s Emirates Arena on their original scheduled date of March 21.
Changes in some of the Scottish Government’s elite sport protocols forced the cancellation of the British indoor athletics championships at the venue.
And BBL sources confirmed they will look for a new venue for their second domestic showpiece, 12 months after the home of the Glasgow Rocks hosted what became the conclusion of the domestic season as Covid took hold.
Quarantine and then…
Covid outbreaks have ripped through much of the British Basketball League. In most cases, the players have quickly rebounded even if there have been strong symptoms among the group of London Lions players who tested positive before the BBL Cup final.
But for the coaches, some a little closer to the age groups which suffer more, the after-affects of the virus are not so easily brushed aside.
Surrey Scorchers coach Creon Raftopoulos was among nine at the club who were corona-afflicted. And the 46-year-old admits it remains a debilitation.
“I had it bad, not enough that I had to go to hospital but it was still difficult,” he said.
“I still find my energy levels are down. Normally, we’d have morning practice and I’d go check in on the academy or see how the younger players are doing or have something else to look over.
“Now I need to rest up in the afternoon. And with the lockdown, you have the issue that it’s hard to take your mind off coaching. You go home without doing much else so all you think about is basketball. And it’s hard with the guys because there’s no team building off the court.”
Joe Prunty is back on the international sidelines, coaching the USA.
Sheffield Sharks are “optimistically cautious” about moving into a new 3,900-seater arena in 2022.
The drama was all surrounding London Lions but Newcastle Eagles lifted the BBL Cup.
Renee Busch of Sevenoaks Suns joined the MVP Cast to talk about how Covid has impacted the WBBL, her multi-national background, being coached by her father Len and the immense role models in her life, the lessons she passes onto young girls under her tutelage, and the highs of her international career.
Images: Ahmedphotos, UConn, FIBA, Riders