The Junior Tall Blacks basketball team made history last December by outshooting Australia to become the first Junior Tall Blacks side in history to qualify for the FIBA Under 19 World Cup, to be held in Cairo this July.
Moments after the buzzer of the FIBA U18 Oceania Final, with the world cup qualification cemented and celebrations ringing around the court, Head Coach Daryl Cartwright's mind was already considering the massive challenge that had just been entitled to the team.
"I said to the boys directly after the Final, 'The real hard work begins for us now that we've qualified for the World Cup.'"
There's no doubt that the standard of play is going to jump up in Cairo, where professional players lace other countries' rosters. Cartwright says every Kiwi player must earn their spot on the team again.
"I'm pretty honest with the group and I always am. The twelve that played in the Oceania Final will be involved of course, but the entire team is aware that there were guys who were unavailable last year because of injury and other reasons. Those players will also be able to challenge for selection, because we could have an injury, or we could have guys lacking a bit of form coming in, so yeah last year's roster is not guaranteed for this year.
"It was a very difficult to select the final twelve for the Oceania Championship, but I'm always upfront with the players and tell them where they stand, so there are no surprises. I'm not telling one person one thing and another person something different, because that's part of our culture in the team and we want to try and be better every day we step on court.
"We have some non-negotiables and the boys are held to that standard. Last year they know that if they didn't meet those standards, they weren't going to cut it. What I'm really proud of was that the whole squad bought into it. The guys who missed out were obviously very disappointed, naturally so, but some of them were the first to congratulate us when we won the Oceania Championship. At that time I said to them "you guys are a part of this win as well, because all the boys who played and were a part of that preparation, helped us to get to the point where we were. So we can only take twelve, but they all played a part in some way helping us get there."
Reselection might sound harsh to outsiders, but Cartwright emphasises the importance of competition within the team and using that to drive the passion for the New Zealand Jersey. It's that toughness, yet respect for team over individual stars that appears to drive Cartwright's coaching. Watch the final of the FIBA Under 18 Oceania Championships - Cartwright held his nerve against Australia. Instead of favouring five players, as some coaches have done in the past when challenging heavyweight nations, Cartwright stuck to the plan and rotated the entire team.
"The strength of the playing group was the depth of our team. I had faith in all the players, from one to twelve," says Cartwright.
"I think everyone deserved an opportunity, so as a coach I wanted to see what each of them could bring and could provide, and had faith that each of them could do the job when on the floor. Obviously there are guys who are going to play more minutes than others in the end, but I felt that everyone contributed positively when they got their opportunity. That was a nice thing, to be able involve all the guys in the team and give them the opportunity to feature and play in the final."
Cartwright is quick to pull the victory into perspective and says a win over Australia, one of the world's top junior teams, is still only a victory at the Oceanias. Now a bigger stage awaits in Cairo.
"At the Worlds, I don't think we are going to be as offensively talented as some other teams there that are obviously playing at a higher level. There are teams from the Americas and Europe in particular, who play alongside very good professional clubs and players who spend day in and out competing at a very high level.
"Our challenge is to find ways to negate some of that offensive firepower of the other teams and working together as a unit really well. That's kind of how the Tall Blacks manage to punch way above their weight internationally - it's that 'team basketball' over individual star performers - that will be something we will look to tap into again and utilise that as our strength."
Cairo - security and venue
FIBA's choice to name Cairo as the host city has already raised questions about what this team can expect in a country that has history with political instability, not to mention uncertainty around the playing venue and hotels. The venue will undoubtedly be a big part of those plans and the Cairo Stadium Indoor Halls Complex is no ordinary indoor complex - this venue is massive. Built in 1991 and revamped for world handball championships in the mid two-thousands, the main hall holds 20,000 spectators. So how can Basketball New Zealand, the coaches, the parents and caregivers of the junior players, and the players themselves feel comfortable about travelling and playing in Cairo?
Seeking assurances, Cartwright was sent on a reconnaissance mission to Cairo. He met with FIBA representatives, the local organising committee and the local federation, to see what the JTBs can expect when it comes to hotels, playing conditions, the venue and security. Cartwright returned last week speaking positively about what lay ahead.
"FIBA and the local organising committee had a person who's in charge of running security. They walked us through the protocol around the hotel and the playing venue.
They will be controlling the area with not only security, but with local Police and military assistance as well. I thought they were pretty thorough how they went through everything, particularly with stadium and how people enter. There will be an outer ring that people will pass through, and there are things like the canine unit, and metal detectors and scanners. Once you enter that ring, there's a second line of security entering the playing area itself. All the hotels were the same. So yes, there will be a heavy security presence, it's obviously something that they are used to over there. Like anywhere else in the world you can't control everything, but what they can look after they are definitely making a priority."
With some of the administrative details behind him and tip-off time in Cairo fast approaching, Cartwright says he's looking forward to preparing for Pool A: Korea, France and another from the Amercias that's yet to be added.
"To really begin our planning, we had to wait for the draw. We are looking at going on a preparation tour to Europe and countries to host us. France was originally one of the countries, but as we've drawn them in our pool, it's closed that door - they won't want to host us when we've got to face them in pool play.
"Ahead of the tour, our preparation will be similar to how we prepared for the Oceania Champs. We'll get together every month as a group, mainly with those who are based in New Zealand or Australia, but then look to have a long campaign lead-in with everybody come June. So that'll involve maybe a few days here in New Zealand and then onto Europe," says Cartwright.
Now that the draw has been unveiled, Cartwright and his team will be doing their homework, but so will the opposition.
"Obviously we have our systems in place, which we used against Australia, so we may have to look at having other options, or other ways we can maybe target our opposition and exploit areas of weakness.
"We'll also be working with our athletes. We'll start to track them a little bit, look at what work they are putting in, follow their programmes, see who they are going to be working with when they're not in camp, and trying to get them to a certain level of fitness. We obviously want them peaking around June - July and operating at the highest level."
Whatever makes up the preparation for the World Cup, there's no doubt that the 'team before self' ethos will be central to the Junior Tall Blacks. Qualification with the wider squad of junior players has been a focus for years. Many of the players were team mates as the Under 17 team, which lost to Australia in the final moments during the Under 17 Oceanias, despite beating them earlier in the tournament during in pool play - New Zealand 81, Australia 62. For Cartwright, that was ammunition.
"During the very first session that I took over as the head coach, I played the team a video of those last moments of the Under 19s Final from 2014, when the team lost to Australia on the buzzer, and I pointed out that was the difference between winning and losing. It really focused us and where we wanted to be. It helped us set those non-negotiables that I mentioned and our expectations to be better every single day. Ever since then we have believed."