Those who tuned into David and Davis’ podcast over at heinnews this week and/or have been reading the rants posted on BallinEurope on Milos Teodosic’s play in the recent FIBA EuroBasket 2013 qualifiers know that BiE fears something is amiss in Serbia. BallinEurope’s contributing writer from over there, Marko Savkovic, today tells us that head coach Dušan Ivković attempted to address some of the issues dogging his Team Serbia yesterday. Did Duda succeed in his explanation? You be the judge…

Team Serbia walked a very thin line last Tuesday, narrowly escaping elimination from EuroBasket 2013. Three days later, its coach Dušan “Duda” Ivković faced the press.

Yes, Israel was beaten fairly convincingly on Tuesday evening. If it hadn’t been for a couple of late three-pointers from Guy Pnini, Omri Casspi’s strong 1-on-1 display and some staunch 4th quarter defense, Serbia would have won by a margin far greater than 19 points necessary to finish second in the group. Belgrade’s Pionir Arena welcomed home team’s rise from the state of complete disarray into which it had fallen in after its disgraceful loss to Estonia. Yet the smiles and cheers were those not so much confidence or gratitude, but of relief. Relief for a nation which – you have to compare – 10 years ago celebrated its last world championship.

On Friday, coach Duda spoke to the press.He accepted part of the blame for the team’s abysmal showing in the EuroBasket qualifiers, but also argued that “we [Serbia] are not a team going about to disgrace our nation.”

As his team was winning the friendly against Turkey in August, Duda confided to his assistants that it “would have been better if we’d lost,” since that would make some sense to his players. Instead, it was up to young Nikola Ivanovic of team Montenegro to land the first blow.

What followed was sincere and worrisome: “I am one of few coaches in Europe who is attempting to create basketball that is modern and aggressive. This team (Serbia), on most of the positions on court, can’t handle it physically. It’s not that players don’t want it, they just can’t.”

The relationship between Duda and his star player Milos Teodosic has received much media scrutiny. BiE has followed it closely; many, including former greats like Zoran Slavnic, speculated how Duda is being lenient and Teodosic irresponsible. But the coach focused his attention on presumed substitutions and DNPs.

“The greatest problems in our game are caused by the lack of proper substitutes for Teodosic. I had hoped a back-up might be found in one of the younger guys – [Nemanja] Nedovic, [Danilo] Andjusic or [Nemanja] Jaramaz. They gave their best, but we faced the problem that the injured [Aleksandar] Rasic could not handle the responsibility for one moment. Neither could [Milenko] Tepic.” With Stefan Markovic out, Duda admitted he even considered calling up reliable veteran Vule Avdalovic, hardly in his prime.

“The Milos Issue” was eventually brought to the table. For a player torn apart by fans, Duda has plenty of understanding, it seems. “[Teodosic] is a romantic, a player who lives for one pass, one assist. All our recent successes were made around him. Yet, I told him he has to change some things. That he has to work more, especially on defense; how he will be playing under a demanding coach next season (Ettore Messina); that he has a big contract; and finally, how I don’t understand why a player of his age has no ambition to play in the NBA”.

Die-hard basketball fanatics might argue that it all started with the last-second shot Savanovic missed against France (see below), which would have earned Serbia a perfect 5-0 score in its EuroBasket 2011 group. But let’s not be naïve: This team is terrible in many aspects of the beloved game.

Team Serbia has become awful from perimeter (except when playing against Slovakia). It can’t defend the pick-and-roll. Some of its key players (Nenad Krstic, Dusko Savanovic) are painfully slow, allowing virtually every opponent easy transition. Tepic, hailed as heir to the throne of Dejan Bodiroga, has been on a steady decline ever since he had (prematurely?) left Partizan. Finally, the whole team has battled injuries on and on again (which again speaks a lot of the actual level of fitness). For second year running, Novica Velickovic – aka “Novica ubica” or “Novica the Killer” – was out of business, a setback not even Ivkovic could overcome.

In the end, Duda remained cautiously optimistic. “If we learn the right lessons from this, we will be able to react. What we have managed to achieve is to bring forward younger players; Vladimir Stimac deserved his place [in the team], while Vladimir Lucic was a complete revelation. There is talent, but we are physically inferior,” concluded the venerated coach.

Marko Savkovic fell in love with basketball because: a) his older brother used to play, so it must have been a cool thing to do; and b) he witnessed Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc play an exhibition match back in 1988. After learning the fundamentals with Partizan Belgrade, Marko spent four years in FMP Zeleznik’s youth system and another three playing lower-division ball. Years later, as a political science graduate, he found a different career for himself, yet remained devoted to hoops. For BallinEurope, he will be closely following developments in the Adriatic league. You may write him at markosavkovic@gmail.com.

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