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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Why the unique qualifying series of the Belgian Cats is not self-evident

Emma Meesseman took out her Swiss army knife again, the team game played as usual and the bench players showed themselves more than ever. Yet there were also negatives. A summary of the Olympic qualifying tournament of the Belgian Cats in five observations.

1. The unique series of eight

Looking soberly, the Belgian Cats have done what they could and should do, according to the proportions. The loss against the US was taken into account, although it was very narrow. Wins against Senegal (number twenty in the FIBA ​​ranking) and Nigeria (number eleven) were only logical: the Cats are sixth in the world rankings.

However, we should not take qualification for the eighth major tournament in a row (after the European Championships of 2017, 2019, 2021 and 2023, the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 and the 2021 Olympic Games) for granted.

Only one European country can present the same series: France, although with the nuance that, as home country, it is directly qualified for the Paris Games. Furthermore, only traditional powerhouses in women’s basketball could qualify for the last four global tournaments: the US, Australia, Canada, China, Japan and tiny Puerto Rico. Of the twelve countries qualifying for Paris, only Puerto Rico and Serbia, two countries with a strong basketball tradition, are smaller in population than Belgium.

The great thing is that of the Belgian team that won bronze at the 2017 European Championships, there are ‘only’ five players left: Emma Meesseman, Julie Vanloo, Antonia Delaere (who together became European champions in the U18s in 2011), Kyara Linskens and Serena-Lynn Geldof. The seven others were added later, even after the Tokyo Games.

2. The Swiss Army Knife by Emma Meesseman

Emma Meesseman was voted the best player (Most Valuable Player) after the Olympic qualifying tournament, and is logically also part of the five best players (All Star Five). That also gradually seems normal, but her series is now also astonishing. In the seven championships and three qualifying tournaments (for the 2021 and 2024 Games and the 2022 World Cup) that she has already played with the Cats, the Ypres native was chosen nine times as one of the five best players. She was also named MVP four times, including at the two Olympic qualifying tournaments and at the most recent European Championships, where the Cats won gold. The only time Meesseman did not receive an individual title? The 2022 World Cup, where she suffered from a calf injury.

“One of the best five players in the world,” Team USA coach Cheryl Reeve complimented her after the US’s narrow win against Belgium last Thursday. A match in which the American ladies had paralyzed Meesseman: ‘only’ six points from three out of nine attempts. For the Cats, this is an exceptionally low score for the West Flemish. Yet her presence on the field turned out to be positive: she provided seven assists and created space for her teammates through the double coverage of the Americans. The Cats scored two more points than the US with Meesseman on the field.

In the next two matches she again used her Swiss army knife, both offensively and defensively: 32 points against Senegal in 29 minutes (one point shy of her career high), 14 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks against Nigeria in 27 minutes.

At the age of thirty, Meesseman is better than ever and has once again confirmed her status as the indispensable leader of the Cats, on and off the field.

3. The three-point (r)evolution of the Cats

In the NBA, the evolution has been going on for years: teams shot much more from behind the three-point line, because such an attempt yields fifty percent more points than a possible two-pointer. Because the chance of a score is greater in the ‘paint’, close to the basket, this creates two zones from which the majority of the field goalattempts are made. Half-distance shots are much less numerous these days.

This three-point revolution was more visible than ever among the Belgian Cats at the Olympic qualifying tournament. At last year’s European Championships, 36 percent of their attempts were three-pointers. In the three matches in the Antwerp Sportpaleis this weekend, this rose to no less than 44 percent, against the US even to 48 percent. A total of just under 30 attempts per match, of which an average of 10 by Julie Vanloo.

Equally striking against the American ladies: only 2 of the 60 shots were taken outside the ‘paint’ and in front of the three-point line. And no coincidence: both by Meesseman, who missed both attempts. That half-distance shot is one of her specialties and it has completely shut down the US.

Despite still a large majority of three-pointers from the Cats (46 and 38 percent), Senegal and Nigeria were much less able to do so: Meesseman scored 10 out of 13 of her half-distance attempts (out of a total of 18 from the Cats) and 4 out of 5 respectively ( out of a total of 11).

Julie Vanloo made no fewer than ten three-point attempts per match at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Antwerp and completed 37 percent. © Isosport

The disadvantage of that high number of three-point shots: if they don’t come in, you are vulnerable. At the last European Championship, the Cats achieved a very high 42 percent, by far the best percentage of all teams. At the Olympic qualifying tournament this was 33.7 percent, partly due to the only 5 out of 27 against Nigeria (18.5 percent). The African champion did not punish that, but the top countries will. The Belgian ladies cannot afford that at the Games, especially if they take 44 percent of their shots from behind the three-point line.

Also striking, and partly the result of that high three-point percentage: the Cats forced only nine free throws per match, almost half fewer than at the most recent European Championship (16.8). Against the US the ratio was even 11 versus 31. This partly had to do with the absence of the injured center Kyara Linskens and her presence under the basket. At the European Championships, after Meesseman, she also made the most free throws of the Cats (3.5 per game). A fit Linskens will be necessary for the Cats in Paris, also defensively.

4. The flowing, but sometimes too sloppy team play

The Cats have been known for their fluid, selfless team play for years. The number made field goals after an individual action is always quite small. As in Antwerp: 83 assists on 102 successful attempts, or 81 percent. More than 10 percent less than the extremely high percentage at the last European Championship (92.6%), but still an exceptionally high number. The Cats were even close against Senegal and Nigeria with 89 and 88 percent field goals which were scored after an assist. Thanks to ‘floor general’ Julie Allemand who stayed out as a precaution against the US, but recorded a career record of 14 assists against Senegal. Julie Vanloo also seemed to pay more attention to her teammates than ever: 5.7 assists per match (at the European Championships she averaged 3.2).

The offensive danger was also greater, and that could become crucial at the Games. The progress of Bethy Mununga and Maxuella Lisowa was particularly striking: at the European Championship they only scored 1.7 and 3.3 points per match. At the Olympic qualifying tournament, this increased to 8.7 and 7.7 points per match.

Lisowa was even the star against the US with 17 points, although she dropped to… 0 points against Senegal. That variability has to be removed, but her attacking impulses (she also gave 3.3 assists per game) were striking, just like those of Mununga.

It is no coincidence that both have worked on their shot and gained more international experience this season at the French Villeneuve, the club where Belgian national coach Rachid Méziane is a trainer.

One more point to point out: the many turnovers. Traditionally the Achilles heel of the team, partly due to sloppiness, partly due to the high pace that the Cats want to develop.

At the European Championship they won, the Belgian ladies suffered 15.7 ball losses per match (much more than the other favorites). In the Olympic qualifying tournament they averaged even one more (16.7), including 20 against the US, against a strong, physical defense.

If that is combined with a low finishing percentage, such as in the surprising loss of the European Championship qualifier against the aggressive Poland last November (40%), it can be very painful for the Cats. Vanloo in particular (3.7 ball losses per match in the Olympic qualifying tournament, including 6 against the US) must continue to keep an eye on this in all her enthusiasm.

5. The realistic Olympic medal chances

Emma Meesseman remained, as always, cautious about the Cats’ Olympic medal chances. Her credo remains step by step. Other key players and coach Rachid Méziane were openly more ambitious: ‘We are going for a medal, we don’t have to be afraid of anyone.’ After the European title, and the near stunt against the (although not yet defeated) US, that ambition is certainly justified.

But a medal is certainly not a guarantee. France will be stronger in front of their own audience, just like Spain (the losing European Championship finalist). Competition outside Europe is even greater with not only the US, but also Australia and China.

The Cats must try to avoid the American women in the quarter-finals, and the group stage draw will be crucial for that. Based on the current FIBA ​​ranking, Belgium will be in the second cup of four, which means that it will certainly face the US, China, Australia or Spain in the group.

As Meesseman and co. If you win at least two of the three group matches and end up in the other half of the table than the US, the chance of a viable card in the quarter-finals is greater. And once they reach the semi-finals, the Cats will have two chances to medal. But just like qualifying for the Games, this is also not self-evident.

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