heinnews’s David Hein this week caught up with Thorsen Leibenath, head coach of German basketball club Artland Dragons. They discussed the team’s current struggles in the German BBL, Artland’s chances of advancing in the Eurocup Last 16, how much the team has missed Darius Hall, his start has head coach and the big step of following Chris Fleming as Dragons head coach and about his rookie point guard Drew Neitzel.
heinnews: Hello coach Leibenath, let’s get right into the interview. How would you classify the state of the team right now?
Leibenath: I am not as down as our position in the league (currently 13th – one game from the play-off spots) may suggest. Our last five games in the BBL and the last three games in the Eurocup have showed that we are moving in the right direction. We are using the Eurocup also to develop ourselves for the BBL. And in the BBL it’s just a matter of time until the wins start coming.
heinnews: You have won three games in the Eurocup but the team has lost six in a row in Germany. Why can’t the team grab the wins in the BBL?
Leibenath: Well it has something to do with the level of competition. Frankfurt and Berlin are both good teams and we played good games. We were always in the game against Frankfurt. Berlin kind of took care of us early and we had a good spirit in trying to come back. But Julius Jenkins was too much. Still we are on the right path and I didn’t really see that in late December. We made some adjustments and have been better defensively. We allowed just 62 points against FMP in the Eurocup and only 71 points to Bilbao. Our defense has been getting better
heinnews: One of the problems in the game against Bilbao was your team’s rebounding. Why is that?
Leibenath: We are not the most athletic team, especially in Germany where the competition is very athletic. Bilbao was a similar team to us. But they were taller. We allowed 10 offensive rebounds in the first half. And in the end, that’s why we got beat. As a team, we just have to be excellent around the basket. But that’s been a problem for us.
heinnews: Well, a big help in that area will be the return of power forward Darius Hall. How much longer is he out with his injured finger, and how much does he mean for the team?
Leibenath: Well it’s a matter of days and not weeks. He is already practicing and doing some things with the complete team. But his injury was a major impact on our team. We were able to have some success and that was a surprise. We really are missing his interior defense. He is an intimidating figure in the paint and can block some shots. He also offers some excellent offense, scoring about 9 points in 16 minutes before the injury. He has a very high shooting percentage. So it was really a major loss for us.
heinnews: Hall is also one of the real emotional leaders for the team – has been for many years in fact. How much has the team missed that aspect of his game?
Leibenath: I agree that he’s a leader. And it always hurts when a player with so much positive energy is not there. You cannot have enough of those players on your team. He is also one of the best motivators in the league. In that regard he is still having a big influence on our team. Just from the bench. He is still encouraging the other guys from the bench. But it is different if he’s not in a jersey on the court.
heinnews: You said earlier it’s a matter of days not weeks until Hall can return. So when will he get back into the lineup?
Leibenath: It’s tough to say. I really can’t predict that. We are waiting for the doctors to tell us that it is not a risk. We do not want to take any risks with him.
heinnews: Let’s move to your self now. You were an assistant with Giessen for many years before becoming a head coach for the first time in Scotland with the Scottish Rocks in 2006-07. Then you came back to the BBL a year later to coach the Giessen 46ers. What were those two years like for you?
Leibenath: My goal was always to be a head coach. Scotland was a good decision for me. It was a good situation for me because I had to do a lot of things besides just coaching – like dealing with contracts and some of the business side. And that helped me grow and develop. Then becoming the Giessen head coach was always a goal and dream of mine. I didn’t expect it to really happen so quickly. And that year was just as good. It was a great experience even though the club struggled with financial problems and did not play as well as we hoped. But it was a positive development from an individual aspect. I was proud that Rouven Roessler made the German national team and that Johannes Lischka developed into a real BBL player.
heinnews: You said it was a dream to coach at Giessen. What makes Giessen so special for you?
Leibenath: In Giessen, basketball is the center of attraction. There is not a football or handball team. So there are a lot of fans and a lot of enthusiasm about the team. And Giessen has so much history being the only team in the Bundesliga since the beginning.
heinnews: Then Artland Dragons came calling and you became the successor to the wildly successful coach Chris Fleming. What did it mean for you to take over at Artland?
Leibenath: I really didn’t expect that. They had had so much success lately that it could have been easy for them to go out and bring in a big-name coach with a lot of experience. But they decided to go for a coach who fits their ideas of being young and ambitious and also a German coach. I was really excited about the opportunity.
heinnews: You mentioned the success that Artland had over the years – German Cup winners in 2008, league runners-up in 2007 and the 2008 ULEB Cup Last 16 among other highlights. What kind of expectations did you and the club have coming in to the season?
Leibenath: Well nobody expected it to be easy to continue the recent success. And saying that we expect improvements would mean winning the league and the cup. And that is never easy with a new coach, who has his own system and style of coaching. And it takes time to get settled into the new situation and get everyone on the same page. Still, the expectations are high, and that’s what I like about the club. But the club did not say win or you are in trouble. They are willing to give me time to develop the team.
heinnews: Still, with all the success of the past, there had to be a certain amount of pressure for you coming into Artland.
Leibenath: None of the people in charge put me under pressure. They said one chapter is over and another chapter is beginning. Still, expectations are high in Artland so there is a pressure out there. But any coach who wants to be successful and is ambitious will feel pressure. I did feel a little bit of pressure but not enough to change my focus. Nobody is expecting me to come in and fill the shoes of Chris Fleming. If I tried to copy what he did I would be bound to fail. I need to go my own way with the club.
heinnews: You mentioned Chris Fleming, how much did you talk to him about the Artland opening before taking it?
Leibenath: I really like Chris. When I got the head coaching job at Giessen he was the friendliest of all the coaches to welcome me to the league. And he was always accessible if I had any questions. He is a colleague I appreciate a lot. So it was just natural to call him after I got the offer from Artland. He always gave me good advice and I’m thankful for that.
heinnews: Let’s switch gears again and head to the Eurocup Last 16. Artland is in Group L with Lietuvos Rytas, Spirou Baskets and iurentia Bilbao. How are your team’s chances of advancing to the Final Eight?
Leibenath: Any team in the Last 16 is a good one. And the second group stage is just as competitive as the first round was for us. But I still believe we can advance. There are not a lot of German teams that can go to Spain and beat a Spanish club. We only lost by nine points and I think we could make up for those points at home. But the group is very balanced and all four teams will get wins and losses. We will need to win a game or two on the road.
heinnews: I would like to ask you about one player on your team in particular. Many coaches say the point guard is like their assistant on the court. You have handed the keys to a rookie in Drew Neitzel who comes from a highly-respected college in Michigan State. What do you think about Drew?
Leibenath: I believe it hurt him that he had such a good reputation when he came to Europe. We knew he would develop into an excellent leader but that it would take some time. He has developed a lot of poise and really organizes the team quite well. He is one of the leading assist men in the Eurocup and the BBL. And I am really happy to have him on board. And I expect more good things to come. He works very hard and does not take things for granted. For example, he’s the kind of player who if there is a day off will probably be in the gym, lifting weights or working on his shot. And I appreciate that.
heinnews: Okay, last question. Looking at the state of the team right now, what is the goal for this season?
Leibenath: We have always commented that we wanted to make the play-offs and preferably in the top four to have the home court advantage. In the first half we were not on the right path. But we are getting there and I expect a much better second half of the season. Not making the Top Four of the German Cup was frustrating especially since we have built a reputation for always making the Top Four. That is still nagging. But we did not expect to make the Last 16 in the Eurocup. So that was a good surprise. And in Europe we are getting a taste of something very sweet. But our biggest goal is making the play-offs. And while it would be an advantage to have a higher seed in the top four, we are not afraid of playing as 5, 6, 7 or 8 seed.
heinnews: Well, good luck over the rest of the season.