Hoop Dreams: Finland and Latvia Battle Without Their Brightest Stars

Lots of new faces get called up to the national team facing Latvia in the first of Susijengi's autumn internationals.

Susijengi players in training ahead of game against Latvia / Credit: Ville Vuorinen

Finland’s men’s basketball team takes on Latvia tonight, in the build-up to qualifying for the World Championships – and both teams are doing it without their star players.

Latvia has won all four of their last meetings, so Finland has a lot to prove, as the coach tests out new talent ahead of the autumns other fixtures. 

Wolfpack’s Confidence

The Finnish team – known as Susijengi or Wolfpack – have been on the up-and-up recently, finishing eleventh in last year’s European Championships which were partially staged in Helsinki, and proving to rivals they’re a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.

The meteoric rise of Lauri Markkanen in the NBA showed Stateside audiences that the Land of the Midnight Sun can produce some impressive talent – even if his skills were nurtured on the college basketball circuit in the USA.

This week, Markkanen tweeted a tribute to Senator John McCain who died after a long illness. The Chicago Bulls forward thanked him for helping secure a visa to go to university in Arizona.

Latvia’s Strengths

As a team, Latvia’s strength lies in their physical, defensive play. It propelled them to fifth place in last Eurobasket tournament.

Finnish coach Henrik Dettmann is expecting a tough game from the Baltic opponents.

“They are playing typical Latvian basketball. They are passing well, they’re very tricky, they’re playing very roughly. We need to play better defensively. That’s the key point”, Dettmann tells News Now Finland

“We need to defend better. That is the important thing. We need to stay between ball and basket, stay close to the ball. Latvia is a very good team” says the Susijengi coach.

Kataja Basket player Matias Ojala makes his Finland national team debut against Latvia on Friday 31st August 2018 / Credit: Ville Vuorinen

Fresh Wolfpack Talent

One of the strategies for tonight’s game is to take the chance of bringing on some fresh, young talent to the squad. How they perform against Latvia could determine whether they get a more permanent spot on the squad, with other autumn games coming up against Lithuania and Bosnia Herzegovina during September.

“Of course this is a first time when they can wear the Finland jersey and of course that is a very nice thing. This is a very good chance to push in new players to the squad” explains Dettmann.

There’s a host of new players in the team, but many will be familiar to fans of Finland’s domestic basketball league Korisliiga.

Dettmann has called up Tuomas Hirvonen, Mika Nuolivirta, Matias Ojala and Henri Kantonen as well as youth national team players Ville Tahvanainen, Ricky Waxlax and Tuukka Jaakkola. This call-up is first to the senior team for each of these players.

Kataja Basket player Matias Ojala was very pleased about the call-up to the Susijengi squad.

I’m very happy, I’m worked many years to get this point” says the 29-year-old. 

“It’s gonna be a very tight game and what I’m heard, Latvia will come to the game with very high tempo and playing aggressively. I think it will be a fast-paced game” Ojala adds. 

Advertising for Susijengi autumn internationals / Credit: News Now Finland

Star Players Missing

One big question hangs over both of the teams facing off at the Metro Arena in Espoo on Friday night: how will they perform without their star players?

Lauri Markkanen is sitting the autumn series out as he prepares for his sophomore season with the Chicago Bulls, which begins in October.

And Latvia are hit with the same problem, as Kristaps Porzingis, Davis Bertansin and Rodions Kurucsin are also preparing for the start of the NBA season.

Finland at least are counting on new talent to try and overcome a physical Latvian team, with fresh energy and physicality.

“We trained hard lately. Lots of tactical things, we tried to improve our defense style and how we want to defend, and tried to think how we keep the game tempo up” says Matias Ojala.