Watch: The man hoping to reclaim the Varsity crown for UoN Basketball

With the BUCS season coming to a climax and the highly anticipated Varsity clash with Nottingham Trent approaching, UoN’s Men’s 1s Basketball team head coach Mindaugas Janiska has a big first few months of 2018 ahead of him. For the 250th edition of Impact, we spoke to the new coach about his life in basketball, his reflections on his first season in the job, and his hopes for the rest of the campaign.

Watch Impact’s full interview with Coach MD here:

Impact Magazine: What made you choose basketball over any other sport?

Mindaugas Janiska: I think living in Lithuania where the main sport is Basketball, we say it’s more like a religion than a sport back home. I mean my mum played basketball, it wasn’t at a professional level, just a local level. One of my best friends at school, his dad used to practice with what was called veterans. And then we just used to go with him in the evenings to shoot basketballs on the side, away from adults, and we found out that there was a club for young kids. We joined the club, and since then, about six or seven years old when we started.

IM: Were there any Lithuanian players you looked up to growing up?

MJ: Oh yeah, we have quite a few legends and superstars from Lithuania who are now retired. I always looked at my own position, which was Point Guard, I always idolised Šar?nas Mar?iulionis, who’s finished playing but was one of the first to go and play in the NBA. Once he finished playing he had his own academy in Lithuania and my city’s sports school used to play against his academy, biggest rivals and all that. And when I was young they came to our town for this star event with the adults, and us as the kids were the warm-up game before that.Mar?iulionis himself was there, and after the game I was awarded the MVP, and he awarded me the basketball, shaking my hand. To me that was massive.

IM: Is there one team in basketball that you would have loved to play for?

MJ: Well, obviously living in Lithuania I always wanted to play for Žalgiris, one of the most well-known teams in Europe and the World, really. Like I said, there were the famous rivalries with Lithuanian Žalgiris and Russian CSKA Moscow, I always dreamed to play in those matches. My friend who I started playing basketball with, he actually played for them for a year or two. I mean I was so envious of his achievement, but not in a bad way, we’re still in touch today.

IM: So how did you end up getting involved with The University of Nottingham a a coach here?

MJ: Well it’s funny, I was literally going through my Facebook timeline and I saw the advertisement for the job. And I thought, well I’m only about half an hour away, I thought I’d get into coaching about now, so I applied and a couple of e-mails there and back, and they said your application was really strong, and they invited me to do a live demo session and an interview, and obviously after all of that I was successful in getting the position.

IM: Did you always think you’d go into coaching?

MJ: I think for sure, I always knew I either wanted to be a P.E. teacher, because I loved sports so much or go into coaching. As I kinda got older, I knew that was the path I wanted to take. You know, there’s an old saying, ‘Go where your passion is and you’re never going to work a day’, and that’s how I got to coaching.

IM: Is your job mainly about results or developing players?

MJ: From the job interview, what I understood was that they wanted something new and fresh. So, when I met the players, I told them, ‘I’m here to make you better basketball players, first of all, the results will come’. Because at a university they want the results straight away, everyone wants to win, that’s natural. I told them, whenever you leave I want you to be able to be a better basketball player, if you go to another team for you to be able to make an impact.

Talking about Trent, after a month I understood what it’s all about, it’s the biggest rivalry. Obviously we’ve already played them twice this year, first at home which was a really important game for us, played really well and we managed to win by twelve points, and then we had another encounter last week where we actually lost by two points. Some of the basketball community questioned why we lost that game, and we actually tried to explain to them that it was actually my decision to lose the game by two. Because we could have gone for overtime, scored another two points and played another five minutes, but if you play another five minutes, you don’t know what’s going to happen in that time. You could lose by 13, and then they’d be up on points difference, but because we only lost by two, we’re still up by ten points and that’s why we’re still top of the table. Sometimes you just have to be smart about how you do it.

IM: That’s a really interesting a tactical decision there. Was that a difficult decision to make? I assume you had the belief in your team but you also had the knowledge that it could have gone much worse. Did you have players questioning your decision?

MJ: Of course, I don’t just turn up to every game, I do a lot of analysis of each team, I’m thinking about Plan B and C, Plan A is always to win. Don’t get me wrong, it hurt me to lose because up to that point we hadn’t lost a game and we still have three games left in the season. When I told the guys, with about 20 or 30 seconds to go, I said we’re either going to go for the win, with a three pointer, or we’re going to lose by two. We’re not going for overtime. We tried, we had a few possessions where we could have scored a three, but it didn’t go our way. The game was really good, 80-78, a really good battle of two top teams. We just had to take that decision.

IM: I suppose that’s a luxury you have when you’re top of the league, to make that decision. What has gone so right this season, and was that missing from the Trent game?

MJ: Well to be honest, you don’t know how the season is going to progress. Our biggest guy, Paul, got injured three games into the season. So he was out for six, seven games, all that time we played without a big centre, in basketball that’s a must. So a lot of guys had to extra work and cover while Paul wasn’t there, and Paul actually came back for the second Trent game, and he did really well to come back having not played, he did really well to get us that result having been injured for so long. So it’s those little things you can’t predict, or maybe someone can’t be there for a family issue, and that’s the difference between being a university squad and a professional outfit. When you pay somebody money, no matter what happens you have to be there, here you have to be more understanding as a coach.

IM: At that first Trent game, there was great attendance by students and that helped to create a great atmosphere. How great would it be to have that at these last couple of home games?

MJ: Of course, that’s something I’ve talked to the players and the committee about. I said talk to your friends, tell your friends about basketball, tell them it’s exciting and get them to come and watch, because I know when you play in a gym with three or four people, you just get on with it, but when you have someone there chanting you on, it just gives you that extra boost, and that can make the difference in a game. In the Trent game that gave us that extra push, because the game was very even for three quarters, it was only in the last five minutes we ran a way with it, I think it’s thanks to the crowd. I wish we could get more people through the doors definitely.

IM: Are there any players students should look forward to seeing at varsity?

MJ: Oh yeah, we definitely have an exciting squad. We have guys who can shoot the lights out, we have Paul who can do some crazy dunks, it’ll definitely be an exciting time. I just hope that we can stay injury free, people’s commitment stays the same after Christmas, and we can just carry on what we’ve been doing since the start of the season. So far, what we’ve been trying to build has been working so hopefully we can retain that after the New Year.

IM: Speaking of atmosphere, have you heard any stories of what Varsity is like from your players.

MJ: Of course, they’ve told me it’s a great event for both universities. I watched the intro clip online and it really gets your blood going, so I definitely understand how big that is and how important it is for the university’s prestige and for the club. Don’t get me wrong, we really want to win that.

IM: You’ve done so well in BUCS in the first semester, but do you see any problems that you want to iron out so that you can secure the league?

MJ: Definitely. It’s a bit of a joke but I told the guys: ‘Look. I’ve been there before as a player. I know how the turkey after christmas is. You have to come back early and put the work in, because all the mince pies and that make a difference. Two or three weeks holiday can have a massive impact on our training. The decision to lose against Trent made sure it was in our hands. Now we have three games left to become champions.

Alex Riggs

Featured Image: UoN Sport

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