He may play in one of the smallest markets in the Euroleague, but you would need to have tunnel vision not to recognize Mate Skelin, second in the MVP rankings and the subject of this week's Euroleague.net interview, as perhaps the hottest big man on the continent right now. At 28 and seemingly still growing, Skelin has led Krka of Novo Mesto, Slovenia on a wild ride into the middle of the Group C playoff race. Skelin and Krka, who made the Euroleague through the preseason qualifying round, have since downed a string of basketball giants - Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Skipper Bologna and CSKA - from one side of Europe to the other. The last two of those victims came just before the break for national team play, from which Krka returns to face one of the biggest challenges imaginable, a rematch with Panathinaikos in Athens on Wednesday. Skelin is well aware of the importance of the moment. "I must work as a real teammate and help my club to its best performance," Skelin told Euroleague.net. "If we manage to play well in these three games and if I were able to do enough to win the MVP award, that would be the greatest honor of my life."
Mate, everyone wants to know: What is the Krka's secret? With two different coaches, you guys have beaten four huge opponents. How?
I think that we played well from the very start of this season. We had two really tough games at the beginning to qualify for the Euroleague. After that we had some bad luck and needlessly lost two or three games with, let's say, "equivalent" teams. After that we played great games with some of the best teams in Europe - Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Skipper and CSKA - and we showed how good we are. If we managed to win against just one or two of the greatest teams, then you could say that we were lucky. But we showed that Krka is a team that can beat anyone in Europe now.
You had one coach - Ales Pipan , who made yours a great offensive team. Now, with Neven Spahija on the bench, the focus has been defense, right?
It's true. Spahija said after he came to Novo Mesto that we are a great team composed of great players who can play offense as well as any team. But his first mission was to work on our defense. He made some changes, most of them psychological, showing us that you can play good in offense but without strong defense you cannot win the game. One important difference between Pipan and Spahija and is the hard work Spahija demands. We played well, but perhaps a little bit too soft, under Pipan's leadership.
You are second in the Euroleague MVP rankings with three games left: Could you have imagined such a good season?
No I didn't imagine that I was going to have such a great season. But I am aware that this isn't just my achievement. I could not make such improvement if I didn't have such a team behind me as Krka. If other players weren't helping me, I'm sure that I wouldn't be able to do as well as I have. Teamwork is my motto. In these three games facing us, I won't look at my stats. I must work as a real teammate and help my club to its best performance. But sure it is a great honour for me to be among the three top players in Europe. If we manage to played well in this three games and if I were able to do enough to win the MVP award, that would be the greatest honor of my life.
You are averaging a double-double in the Euroleague (not too many players can say that in any season). Even your free throws are better. Are you doing anything different than in the past?
No, there is no magic (laugh). I must say that I work as hard this season as I did last year with Cibona. About my free throws and good stats this season, I can say that the only thing that is different is my confidence. I acquired that thanks to Krka making me one of the pillars of the team, and that added weight to my performances. But as I already said, there is no magic involved.
How did you choose Novo Mesto? You must have had offers from teams that were already guaranteed to be in the Euroleague.
I heard a lot of challenging and positive things about Krka from other Croatian player who played in Novo Mesto, mostly about the good work and club relations here. So I didn't have any problems to accept Krka's offer, and now that I'm here, of course I don't regret that. About playing in the Euroleague, I just saw Krka as a well-integrated, great team and I didn't doubt that we would be playing in Europe's top competition. I had some offers from other teams but everything came together here and that is the most important thing.
You seem to like playing against CSKA. Is that just because it is your old team?
It's probably true that I want to show the management of CSKA that they had a great player on their team and that they didn't use me to the fullest. But I play every game like the other and the most important thing for me is the result of the team where I work now. I put 100% into every performance.
What is it like to play with Jaka Lakovic? Did you know he was going to be so good?
I hadn't seen Jaka Lakovic play before. But in practice, as I saw Jaka's persistence, seriousness and hard work, I started to believed that this kid was really magic and that he would have a great season. He is a great player and shooter who also plays hard on defense. I'm sure that he has a great career in front of him.
What about your NBA experience with Indiana? What was it like to have Larry Bird as a coach, even for a short time?
Well, I didn't play much in NBA. I was on the team and wore number 41, but most of the time I was sitting on the bench. But I can say that the NBA was a really great thing that happened to me, with their organization, discipline, the games, the shows, everything on a high level, too. But as I say I was most of the time on the bench and I couldn't take it anymore and I returned to Europe again. Larry Bird is a charismatic person with great character and it was great honor to work with him. He had a great relationship with Stojko Vrankovic, who also played in NBA at that time, and thanks to that I also have great relationship with Larry.
Tell us about when you were stuck in Vancouver, Canada and missed the chance to play against Shaquille O'Neal?
Yes it's true. I had some problems with my visa when we were in Vancouver. But it was during the holidays, so I had to stay five days in Vancouver. When I left the airport after they didn't let me go back to the States, I took out the phone book at the hotel to see if there were some people with Croatian names in there. I had great luck and I found some long-lost relatives. At first they thought I was joking, but I managed to assure them of who I was and then we had a great time in Vancouver, where I got to know a lot of nice people from Croatia. At the end everything was great, but unfortunately I missed the game in Los Angeles with Lakers. I really regretted that I didn't see Shaquille O'Neal live. But I wasn't afraid of playing him. As I said, most of the time I sat on the bench.
Krka looks like a winning machine now? Was this break in the Euroleague schedule badly timed for you and your team?
I hope that we haven't lost our rhythm and the right mood for winning. But the break wasn't too long and I hope that we will be able to continue with our great performance. We are aware that defeat is part of the game, but right now our first thought is to play some more great games.