The Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE) 2023 celebrate their official opening on Monday but as far as Malta’s basketball teams are concerned, Tuesday tips off their commitments in the men’s and women’s tournaments, and men’s coach Alan Walls is braced for five games in five days.
Walls, who joined the team for a second consecutive year after his debut as Malta coach last Summer for the FIBA Small Countries Championship, believes chemistry will be key this time around.
“My biggest concern with a mix of veteran players and new players coming onto the team, who were not with us last year, would be team chemistry and that has not been a problem at all,” Walls told the Times of Malta.
“We’ve got great personalities on the team, very professional players and very good people so building the chemistry was very simple and the team as able to gel very quickly, so it’s been a very good week of practice and very competitive – we’ve been able to cover quite a bit in just a short time but a lot of it has to do with the professional attitude of the players.”
Similar to the FIBA tournament last year, when Malta made it to the Gold medal game against Armenia in July, the GSSE competition will take place on home court and Walls believes that advantage should help. He also insists that with the dense fixture list, strategy will be doubly important this time around.
“First of all, it’s great to be back and to be playing here in Malta ‑ we’ll have that homecourt advantage. We expect to have the gym full, packed with lines of people trying to get in so hopefully, the fans come out and fulfill that expectation,” he explained.
“The Games of the Small States of Europe and the competition that we have ahead of us is actually at a higher level than the FIBA Small Countries Games and we know that so we’re not taking anything for granted.
“The success that we had last year does not mean anything and this year we start from scratch. Our team is better with the new additions that we have so we have high expectations for our team, but we also have higher expectations for our opponents knowing that it’s going to be higher caliber.
“Nothing’s going to be easy, every game is going to be a dog fight, but it is a long tournament – five games over a six-day period. But as we rest on Monday, we’ll play five games in five days so have got to be very strategic on how we break that up and understand that the most important games are the semifinal games and the final. We’re just going to build up to that and do everything we can to assure that we’re playing our best basketball when it comes to the semifinal and the final.”
Asked about Malta’s opponents, Walls emphasised that his focus has been solely on Malta’s players, and would only make opponent-based adjustments in the final two games which would determine the team’s placing.
“I’ve really focused on us; we haven’t talked about the opponents. To me it doesn’t really matter who we play, but more what we do and how we get better as a team. Going into the semifinal and final games is where we make adjustments based on opponents,” he explained.
“The first three games are almost like preseason and regular season mixed together. We can’t have any preparation games, but everyone qualifies for the next round. I’m sure the other teams as well will be taking a similar strategy as the tournament is so early that many leagues are still in season, so for the players to be available would have been difficult.
“We are focused on us and we want to dictate to our opponents. We have young horses who can get out and run and we have perfect personnel to play at half-court as well. Team defence will lead to opportunities to score in transition because we have guys who can push. We have a lot of respect for the other opponents and the higher level of competition, but we just have to make sure we’re getting better. I would love to go undefeated, but we just want to win the gold medal no matter what the record is at the end of the day.”
One major positive point of last summer’s FIBA games had been the confidence shown by Malta-based players David Bugeja, Alec Felice Pace, and Nathan Xuereb among the rest of the squad. Walls believes they will all be important to the squad yet again. Another crucial point will be the return of centre Kurt Cassar after a one-year absence due to injury.
“Kurt (Cassar) could be the X-Factor for us,” the Malta coach said, “He is a very skilled player inside and out, he’s young so he’s got young legs, and despite his youth, he’s also experienced playing overseas in Italy. Having him come back to the national team after taking a year off with his ankle injury, he’s back 100% and he definitely will give us rotation.
“He will be able to give Sam (Deguara) a lot of minutes of rest but we will also look in the first three games at how he looks playing with Sam as well.
“We have a deeper bench, deeper rotation. In the first two and maybe in the third game, we’ll be trying different combinations and also giving guys a lot of rest because it is five games in five days. Kurt Cassar is going to be vital for us – he’s very skilled inside but he also has got the ability to shoot from outside so that will help us stretch the floor. They won’t be able to double-team if he’s in there with Sam and can’t leave him open outside. Defensively he helps to occupy a lot of space and rebound as well.
“David’s (Bugeja) our captain and he’s done very well, Alec (Felice Pace) is coming off his second MVP season at Starlites and has done very well too. He brings a lot of energy both will get a good share of minutes. Nathan (Xuereb) has done really well, played well for us last year and you can see his growth from one year to the next.
“He’s going to be a vital player for us at the point guard position and at the shooting guard as well. His shot has improved, and he’s become more consistent from outside. He’s also very good at controlling the pace and getting us organised, getting to the paint off the dribble as well at times. Ian (Felice Pace) is coming in for us after waiting for the opportunity to step up. All of them will play a very important role for us because of the deep rotation we’ll have to do.”
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