As the University of Utah was recruiting 6-foot-8 Finnish forward Mikael Jatunen out of Helsinki Basketball Academy, he had already established himself as part of his country’s national team program.
A veteran of three FIBA Under-18 European Championships, Jantunen’s trajectory was clearly moving towards Finland’s senior national team, which is what every basketball player growing up in Europe dreams of. Young Europeans want to grow up to represent their country, to play in EuroBasket, which is the European Championships, and to represent their country in a World Championships and an Olympics.
When he recruited Jantunen, Utes head coach Larry Krystkowiak promised him that he could play in all of his national team events. Krystkowiak is holding to that promise, even though Jantunen’s national team responsibilities have now bled into his Utah responsibilities.
Twenty minutes before the Utes tipped off at Stanford, a game they wound up losing, 73-66, the athletic department announced that Jantunen would miss the next few games as he heads back to Europe to join the Finnish national team for a must-win EuroBasket 2022 qualifier against Switzerland on Friday morning in Georgia.
The next EuroBasket was supposed to take place in 2021, but once the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to 2021, EuroBasket was also pushed back a year to 2022.
When Jantunen will return to Salt Lake City is up in the air. Finland will finish qualifying in Group E on Feb. 21 against Georgia. However, if Finland beats Switzerland on Friday, and Serbia beats Georgia that same day, Finland is qualified for EuroBasket 2022. At that point, Finnish national team assistant coach Hanno Mottola, a former Utes star forward from 1996-2000, indicated late Saturday night to The Salt Lake Tribune that they may try to get Jantunen on a plane back to the United States the next day instead of having him play the Feb. 21 game.
In addition to the Stanford loss, Jantunen will miss at least Thursday’s game at Oregon State and Saturday’s contest at Oregon. Beyond that, Utah (9-8, 6-7 Pac-12) hosts the Beavers Feb. 22, UCLA Feb. 25 and league-leading USC on Feb. 27.
“This has been in discussion for a long time between Krystowiak and our head coach Henrik Dettmann,” Mottola told The Tribune. “We have known our situation since the last qualification window at the end of November. This shows the great respect and care Coach K has for his players and understanding of how important this is for Mickey and Finnish basketball.”
Added Jantunen in a statement: “It wasn’t an easy decision and I never want to miss any games. At the same time, I’m going to play for my country and when they called saying they needed me, I felt like I had to go and I want to go help us qualify for the tournament. I’ve been playing with the national team since I was a teenager and it’s been a dream of mine to play for the senior national team and represent my country.”
Regardless of when Jantunen arrives back in the United States, he may be subject to a quarantine period upon arrival. For those traveling from Georgia to the United States, the CDC is recommending a self-quarantine for a full seven days after travel.
Jantunen, the Pac-12 leader in field goal percentage at 68.3%, played 30 minutes of Utah’s 76-75 win at Cal on Thursday night. Per the same athletic department spokesperson, Jantunen left the Bay Area and began heading for Europe on Friday.
By any measurement, Friday’s Finland-Switzerland Group E qualifier will be the biggest game Jantunen has ever played in. His international resume at the junior national team level is extensive, having played in the FIBA Under-17 World Championships in 2016, plus the Under-18 European Championships from 2016-18, but Friday will mark his first time playing in a EuroBasket qualifier.
Finland has qualified for EuroBasket four consecutive times, but that was when the event was played every other year. EuroBasket is now contested every four years, meaning if Finland doesn’t beat Switzerland Friday morning, its next shot at EuroBasket isn’t until 2025.
“This has been kind of a lengthy process,” Krystkowiak said after Saturday’s loss. “The game was originally supposed to be played in the spring. It’s been postponed two times, they weren’t even sure it was going to happen. There was always going to be a promise made on my part that he could take part in all the national team events and here we are in the middle of a COVID year where it impacts our team. In any other year, it doesn’t have that impact. There have been a lot of discussions, and it just kind of came down to the wire with the direction that we went.”