The posters say ‘Welcome to Wolf Country’, and this weekend two top basketball teams are heading to Finland to take on a Wolfpack – Susijengi – that’s ready to bare its teeth.
With the World Cup getting underway in just two weeks, Russia and Lithuania arrive for a couple of warm-up games at Metro Arena in Espoo this weekend. And although the Finns didn’t qualify for the China competition, they’re going to make sure both the visitors go to Asia with games to remember.
“Training has been pretty intense, we’ve had a lot of guys at practice, more than normal between 15 and 20” says team captain Shawn Huff.
“We’ve had a good mix with young guys and also veterans and I think this summer has been about bringing the young players along, and so far they’ve been doing a great job” he says.
At 35-years old the Helsinki Seagulls player is one of the Susijengi veterans. After a heart-stopping loss to Russia last year, narrowly missing out on World Cup qualification, they have to sit on the sidelines and watch teams like Poland, Iran and Jordan go to China instead.
So now the team is in a repair and rebuilding phase, working to bring on a new generation of younger players ahead of qualification for EuroBasket 2021, which begins already in February.
“We have some young guys who are just going abroad now, and a couple of guys who were in college one year, or they’re 19 or 20. I think for the guys who are in college, especially for them it’s a very good experience, and for the guys who are in Europe and most likely available in the [qualification] window” he says.
The current training camp, and the weekend friendlies, are laying the groundwork for the upcoming competitions.
“I think that makes this training camp even more important, so when we get together in February it’s more of a reminder than starting over” Huff tells News Now Finland.
Taking on Baltic powerhouse Lithuania
Susijengi is no stranger to either of the visiting teams this weekend, and Lithuania head to the World Cup ranked 9th – sandwiched between Turkey and Algeria.
“You always get a well-coached team with a high basketball IQ, and a team that always plays hard. They have size, but also skills and they’re able to move the ball” says Huff.
This close to the World Cup the Finns expect the Lithuanians to bring their big name players, at least to travel if they don’t end up playing.
“It will be a competitive squad for sure” he adds.
Finland plays Lithuania on Friday night.
Russian rivals heat up the court
Playing the Russians is always a big deal for Susijengi, especially after such tough games in the World Cup qualifiers.
“We’ve had so many heated matchups against them, in EuroBasket and the last qualifications, and I always feel like these are grueling matches, nail-biters going both ways” explains Susijengi team captain Shawn Huff.
The Russians are ranked 18th for the China World Cup, between Canada and the Philippines.
“I think it’s just that way when you play one of your rivals and neighbours in Europe, and they will bring a very skilled team to Helsinki to prepare for the World Cup” he says.
Finland takes on Russia at Metro Arena in Espoo on Sunday evening.
Returning to play in Finland
Shawn Huff has been playing in Europe for the last 11 seasons so this is his first time back in Finnish competition in a while.
As a dye-in-the-shirt east Helsinki boy, he’s happy to be on home soil again.
After winning the Finnish Championship with FC Honka back in 2003, Huff played college basketball in the USA, before bouncing around clubs in Europe from Germany to Greece, Italy and France for more than a decade.
And sports runs in the family – with his dad an accomplished basketball player in the 1970s, and nephew Ezekiel Elliott playing running back for the Dallas Cowboys.
With the rookie members of the national team squad, Huff gets to play the part of Yoda.
“Of course I am a mentor for the young guys, I can help bring them along and show them the culture. I am the captain, so I want to set a good example with my play on the court, and off the court.”
And has he had thoughts of retirement?
“If you want to earn your spot, you have to really battle for it and really earn it. So if someone wants to come and take my place they are more than welcome to try.”
Sounds like the old wolf has some bite left in him yet.