2012 London Olympic Previews, Group A: Lithuania

Today, we continue Olympic Madness with a preview of Lithuania!

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Lithuania

Group A

FIBA World Ranking: 5th

Qualfied By: 5th at the 2011 Eurobasket, Won the Semi-Final of the 2012 Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Previous Olympic Appearances: 6 (1992-2008)

NBA Players: Linas Kleiza (Toronto Raptors), Jonas Valaciunas (Toronto Raptors)

History: Lithuania has always been one of the most powerful basketball countries in the world. They won two European Championships in the late 30s, and contributed significantly to several very powerful Soviet Union teams during their time under Soviet rule. After independence in 1991, the Lithuanian basketball team has made an appearance at every single Olympics to date, though they have never achieved higher than 3rd place. The country has been a source of some legitimate NBA players, including big man Arvydas Sabonis, two time sixth man of the year Sarunas Marciulionis, and 2011 lottery pick Jonas Valanciunas. But don't expect to recognize more than a couple of the players on their roster, as Lithuanian players usually hone their skills with strong European clubs, and many only go to the NBA for a couple of years.

Overview: In case you hadn't heard, Lithuania is coming off of one of their most disappointing defeats ever, losing to underdog Macedonia in the quarter-finals of the 2011 Eurobasket. Normally, it would be treated as an upsetting loss, but what makes the defeat unbearable is that the Eurobasket was hosted by Lithuania for the first time ever, and it came in front of a large home crowd with thousands of cheering fans.

Lithuania doesn't take defeats lightly, and even though they were upset by Nigeria in the Group Stage of the 2011 Olympic Qualifying tournament, they still looked strong as they defeated a testy Puerto Rican team and utterly dismantled the Dominican Republic on their way to an Olympic bid. They're not any more or less good then they used to be, as Lithuania has a very deep pool of players to pick from and a proven system, but they face stiffer international competition every year, and often hit a few bumps on the road.

Lithuania is the textbook definition of a European-style team. They don't have a main scorer, often having 5 or 6 guys averaging over 10 points per game. Everybody on the team knows how to pass well, and they all know their roles. No player will go beyond his limitations, and the team will generally only take open shots. Post-oriented centers have no place on their team, as they prefer guys who can slither around the defense for uncontested buckets. Defensively, they employ a paint-heavy zone, egging opposing teams into taking bad shots on the perimeter.

Below: Strengths and Weaknesses, Why Lithuania is Ballin', Highlight Reels, Notable Players, Outside Quotes, Outlook For the Olympics and Beyond!

Consequently, their main weakness is their inability to deal with quicker guards who can shoot and take advantage of their plodding zone. In the 2012 Qualifying Tournament upset loss to Nigeria, the normally relatively quiet Derrick Obasohan and Anthony Skinn scored 20 and 15 points, respectively. Both totals were tournament highs for the respective players. The same proved true in their 2011 Eurobasket loss to Macedonia, where Macedonian guard Bo McCalebb exploded late in the game and propelled his team to victory out of the clutches of defeat.

Secondly, they struggle against athletic teams. My reading of this primarily draws from their staggering defeats at the hands of Team USA in 2010 and 2008. While other strong teams could reasonably compete with Team USA into the fourth quarter, Lithuania would have fallen apart by the end of the first half. But you could also read into how they were upset by Nigeria in the 2012 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

There's no one big reason for the weakness, but rather, a variety of small ones. Lithuania doesn't commit many turnovers, but quicker teams can take advantage of a steal on the break, because Lithuania will often concentrate their defense in the lane and not be able to get back on time. Another reason is that Lithuania relies on dominating the rebounding game as one of their strengths, but they don't have two big guys on the block who vacuum all of the boards in sight. Rather, they rely on strong team rebounding, and having guards in the right positions to grab the hustle rebounds, much like Russell Westbrook does for the Thunder. But when other teams have bigger guards who can jump higher, it eliminates that advantage for Lithuania. Lastly, Lithuania is normally good about getting to the line, and will usually beat or at least equal their opponent in trips to the charity stripe. But when they face more athletic teams, their players usually aren't quick or strong enough to draw a foul when running into the paint, limiting Lithuania's offense.

But, despite what I said above, Lithuania is one of the strongest teams in international basketball, and perfectly capable of medalling in the 2012 Olympics. They were undefeated in 2010 other than the Semi-Final loss to Team USA (defeating Argentina, Serbia, and Spain), and they continued it with a relatively strong performance in the 2011 Eurobasket. They're one of the best and most coordinated offensive teams in the world, they rebound extremely well, and all of their players have heavy experience in Europe's top flight.

Why This Team is Ballin':

Of course, the 2011 Eurobasket had some terrible official song by some Lithuanian soft rock group. And they played it over and over and over and over, in both English and Lithuanian, until your head wanted to explode. If you went to one game, if there's one thing you'll remember 50 years from now, it would be that terrible song. But the song that was actually popular with the Lithuanian basketball fans was the one above. Sure, it was made by some New York rapper that probably would have never even heard of Lithuania had he not followed basketball, but a lot of Lithuanians totally loved this song. Mostly because the whole thing is just about how ballin' Jonas Valanciunas supposedly is.

Best Highlight Reel:

The song might not be to everybody's liking, but hey, you can always mute it and admire the highlights. This was Lithuania's most shocking win in recent memory, as they were the second team to beat heavily favored Spain in 2010. It was a down year for Spain, as they were missing Pau Gasol, Sergio Rodriguez, Jose Calderon, and Felipe Reyes that year. But Spain was still the favorite to medal outside of Team USA, and Lithuania managed to beat them and establish dominance in that group, remaining undefeated until the semi-final.

Other Highlights: 2010: Win vs. France, Win vs. Argentina, Loss vs. Team USA 2011: Loss vs.Macedonia, 2012: Win vs. Puerto Rico

Players to Keep an Eye On (click on their name for highlights): Linas Kleiza, a current player for the Toronto Raptors. He's a dynamic scorer with the ability to hit a shot anywhere on the floor, no matter the defense draped on him. Sarunas Jasikevicus, a former NBA player and the team's designated closer. He always gets the ball in end game situations, and he's excellent at distributing the ball and getting to the line. Jonas Maciulis, a forward that's a master of running the break. He has a decent three point shot as well. Martynas Pocius, a quick energy scoring guard with a fast releasing shot. Mantas Kalnietis, the countries' successor to Sarunas Jasikevicus at PG. He likes to run the break and score, but he's been known to make a few flashy passes here and there, and works well within the Lithuanian system. Jonas Valanciunas, an NBA lottery pick last year, touted as Lithuania's best player since Sabonis. He's got a good deal of athleticism, and a really nice touch around the basket. He hasn't been used by Lithuania too much so far, but he has a starting role for the first time in a real international tournament this year.

What Others Are Saying:

"But a closer look at that paper revealed the 2011 version of Team Lithuania’s simple glaring lack with just one natural no. 3 on the entire roster amid a crowd of talented point guards and ultra-talented big men: Jasaitis.

(Incidentally, the mention of Songaila to a Lithuanian fan gets an eye-roll the majority of the time. BiE wonders why that is…)

But. Despite the fact that this side will be remembered as a disappointment, the reality is that Team Lithuania performed admirably well given the limitations. So they were shut down by the Spanish machine despite a gritty, gutsy game played by Valanciunas against Serge Ibaka and the Gasol Boys. And they threw a winnable one away against France in the second round with 16 turnovers against 15 assists – too few proper small forwards, eh?"

-Ballin' Europe

"Will Jasikevicius have enough in the tank at age 36 to make any significant contribution? The veteran playmaker looked like a kid in a candy store at EuroBasket throwing up lob passes for Valanciunas to dunk.

If Jasikevicius is no longer in the picture – he led Lithuania and was third-best in EuroBasket 2011 with 4.6 assists – is Kalnietis ready to take the next step as the Lithuanian national team’s top point guard? And is talented playmaker Augustus Peciukevicius – who will turn 21 in February 2012 – ready to be brought into the mix?

...

Lithuania have no lack of big men, but in 2012 we could finally see Donatas Motiejunas make his debut with the senior national team. The ultra-talented 21-year-old impressed in two seasons at Benetton Treviso before breaking out in his move to Asseco Prokom, with whom he averaged 12.5 points and a Euroleague second-best 7.9 rebounds in the Euroleague."

-FIBA.com Profile

Does This Team Have a Shot at a Medal? For Lithuania, it really depends on matchups. I'd say they have the ability to beat any team not named the USA or France. Those two teams are just too athletic, and will beat them 9 times out of 10. But they'll also face stiff competition from Nigeria, who are also very athletic, and Spain and Russia, who have powerful front lines. If they can get the right matchups and defeat a powerful foe or two, I could see Lithuania getting the Silver or Bronze in these Olympic games. But all luck aside, they'll probably end up fighting someone they don't want to and finish in fourth or lose in the Quarter-Finals.

Future Outlook: Lithuania's future is always bright. Jonas Valanciunas is still developing, and the country has one of the world's strongest under 19 teams. They won the championship last year with the help of Vytunas Cizauskas and Edgaras Ulanovas. Granted, they'll probably lose a couple of veterans when they venture to next year's Eurobasket and will have a down year, but I have no doubt this team will be even stronger in 2014 and 2016, given the young age of many of their top players.

How do you think Lithuania will finish? Do they have a shot at beating Team USA? Vote in the poll, post a comment!

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