This is part of WTLC's coverage of the Eurobasket! Serge Ibaka won't be playing in Spain this year, but there will be a lot of familiar faces in Europe, so we'll be doing some skeleton coverage to keep you up to date. Here's my preview of Group C.
FIBA World Ranking: 2nd
Eurobasket 2011 Result: Gold (1st Place)
Team Overview: For over a decade, Spain has been considered one of Europe's premiere teams, regularly challenging for the Eurobasket title. Recently, their contention has shifted to dominance. They've won two straight Eurobasket titles, and would have won a third in 2007 if Russia hadn't played the game of their lives. They're also widely considered to be the best team in the world outside of the USA, grabbing the Silver medal in the two most recent Olympics.
Spain's generation of dominance is definitely in trouble this year, though. Pau Gasol underwent surgery in May, and won't be ready to play ball by the time the Eurobasket starts. Another hit to the front line was taken when Serge Ibaka announced his absence from the team, so that he can rehab and rest. The back court will be thinner as well, with Juan Carlos Navarro out with right ankle surgery. These players comprise three of Spain's top five scorers during the 2011 Eurobasket and Olympics, so their absences shouldn't be taken lightly.
But it's hard to deny that Spain is still the class of Group C. They've swept their warm-up games, and their roster still teems with NBA and Eurolague stars alike. There's the obvious Marc Gasol, who brings a level of defense and court vision rarely seen at the center position these days. The maestro, Ricky Rubio, will be bringing up the point, while Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon provide excellent athleticism and penetration ability. Victor Claver rounds out the starting lineup with long range shooting ability at the power forward spot. Bringing up the bench will be Sergio Llull and Sergio Rodriguez, two excellent back court scorers and distributors.
Play Style: Spain uses a basic pick and roll style offense, but plays rarely turn out that simply. A play that starts with a pick at the top of the key might end up passing through 3 or 4 players hands before its' shot, or it might result in a re-pick. It's hard to describe, but Spain's offense reminds one of the fluidity and creativity of a good soccer team. Individual plays are hard to describe, but they just find some way to lose their defender and make it work. Defensively, they play man-to-man. But they're not afraid to have defenders switch on a pick, much like the Thunder do. Generally, it prevents the other team from getting easy buckets inside, but it also results in some easier outside shots if a guard draws a mismatch. They're also not afraid to play a mini-zone and have the big man hang around the paint if a guard is about to drive. Despite their man-to-man defense, they rarely trap or pressure.
Main Strength: Excellent ball movement. I've said this about other teams before, but their ball movement is mostly a result of a rigid system that's in place, with each player knowing exactly want to do on a certain play. Spain's ball movement, on the other hand, is a result of individual creativity. Every player on the roster has good hands and court vision, so it's easy for them to find the open man. As a result, Spain had by far the lowest team assist-to-turnover ratio in the 2011 Eurobasket.
Main Weakness: Three point shooting. It's hard to narrow down a specific area for a team that's so talented. There's no one big flaw, and any opponent would need to exploit a lot of little things in order to beat them. But Spain's biggest weakness is their lack of three point shooting. It's not as if they're necessarily bad, but they usually average around 30-35 percent, while ranking in the middle of the pack for threes taken. So it's an area that could definitely be improved. But it's mostly a result of having creative ballhandlers in the guard spots rather than shooters, so it's not a flaw that can be easily corrected. That being said, a team that either forces Spain out on the perimeter or guards them well from long range could definitely stand a good chance of upsetting them.
Final Verdict: No doubt about it, Spain is still the class of the Tournament. They should be able to take Group C fairly easily, though I could see them having some problems scoring against Poland's front line. In terms of the broader tournament, the going will be a little bit more rough. Other projected group winners France, Lithuania, and Greece will all provide legitimate challenges, and I could see a dark horse or two potentially giving them trouble (Israel? Italy?). Though I'd like to see who they match up against first, they definitely have the best odds to win the gold this year.
FIBA World Ranking: Tied for 39th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 17th Place
Team Overview: Poland isn't exactly world-renowned for their basketball dominance. They haven't qualified for a single Olympics since 1980 (which was boycotted by several Western nations), and they haven't placed in the Eurobasket's Top 8 since 1997. But this year, that could all change.
For starters, this will be the first time that the dominant post duo of Marcin Gortat and Maciej Lampe will truly compete for the team. Both of them were on the team in 2009, but they weren't nearly as good as they are today. Maciej Lampe is mostly famous around here for sitting on the OKC Hornets' bench, but make no mistake, he's a legitimate player. Just last year, he was voted the Euroleague player of the month for December, and he stars on one of Spain's best teams. In terms of skillset, Lampe is a nice contrast to Gortat's post-heavy game, as he can nail perimeter jumpers really well. Also joining the Polish team will be American Thomas Kelati, an excellent off-the-dribble three point shooter. Michal Ignerski is a player in a similar vein, except that he shoots a Steph Curry-like stepback. Lukasz Koszarek will bring up the point guard position, possessing a great three point shot and ability to drive and kick.
Play Style: Poland possesses three great big men in Gortat, Lampe, and Ignerski, but none of them are really great passers, so the offense works from the outside in. They like to set off-ball screens for shooters, though they will occasionally do a traditional pick and roll. Their primary way of getting the ball inside is either by having a ballhandler drive on his man, or by having one of the bigs go to the perimeter to clear out space for the other big down low. Defensively, Poland plays man-to-man and doesn't protect the paint or pressure a lot. They do like to get out on the break though, and it's not uncommon to see a Polish big running the floor for an easy slam.
Main Strength: Post presence. Before Lampe and Gortat joined the team, the Polish were really trigger happy on their threes, and they didn't win a lot of games. Lampe and Gortat's arrival changes all that, sucking defenders in so that the three point shooters can get open. And yeah, they'll score points down low too. Of extra advantage is the three big men's ability to score from a variety of positions and angles.
Main Weakness: A weak bench. Once you get past the four or five stars this team has, you start to realize that the rest of the team just isn't on their talent level. A lot of them play domestically, and a regular bench player, Przemyslaw Karnowski, plays for Gonzaga. I'm not trying to rag on professional plays by any means, but Poland has the starting lineup of a contender, while sporting the bench of a team that won't make the second round. Their ability to advance will be determined by how well they space out their minutes.
Final Verdict: I might be crazy for ranking Poland this high, but I have a lot of confidence in them. The truth is, we haven't seen Poland in their full form yet, since they seemed to sit a key player in the vast majority of their warmup games. Moreover, Poland's starting five is as good as anybody's, and I can see their bigs making mincemeat of the weaker Slovenian and Croatian defenses. Positions two to four are really a toss-up, but my money's on Poland. I could see them breaking into the tournament if they don't get too fatigued.
FIBA World Ranking: 14th
2011 Eurobasket Result: 7th
NBA Players: Goran Dragic (Phoenix Suns)
Team Overview: Slovenia has always been a country that's full of rabid basketball supporters, but their national team didn't emerge as a true contender on the European and World stage until recently. 2009 saw their strongest squad in national history capture 4th place at the 2009 Eurobasket. In the process, they beat powerhouses like Lithuania, Turkey, and rival Croatia. But Slovenia hasn't been able to recapture that glory. There's always seemed to be a player missing, like Erazem Lorbek's absence in 2010 and Bostjan Nachbar's and Primoz Brezec's absenses in 2011. Nevertheless, they've still hung around the fringes of the tournament, just lacking that extra oomph to take them into the realm of the contenders.
This year, as they host their first Eurobasket, Slovenia is facing the exact same problem. Erazem Lorbek, a dynamic shooting and passing big, underwent arthroscopic surgery and will have to miss the tournament. Knicks guard Beno Udrih won't be with the team, and neither will former NBA Player Primoz Brezec. Nevertheless, I would consider them to be stronger than they were in 2011. The re-addition of former OKC Hornet Bostjan Nachbar shouldn't be underestimated, nor should the re-addition of Gasper Vidmar, who's developed into an excellent scoring center.
The team will have it's usual suspects as well. Jaka Lakovic and Goran Dragic will form of the Eurobasket's most fearsome backcourt scoring duos as they share point guard duties. Zoran Dragic (different than Goran Dragic), is an extremely athletic defender and scorer.
Play Style: Offensively, Slovenia loves to set on-ball picks. Since their guards are such excellent scorers, it's basically the foundation of their offense. They'll use an on-ball screen up to three times in one set, often improvising the location. Otherwise, Slovenia loves to swing it around the perimeter and throw cross-court passes in transition. Defensively Slovenia goes man-to-man, but in reality they play a zone. They're fond of collapsing upon the lane and making it difficult for the opposing team to scorer, but they also do a poor job of covering the perimeter.
Main Strength: Offensive rebounding. Slovenia can really be a pest offensively. They're not afraid to pack the paint with players, and there's usually somebody following the guy driving the ball to see if he can get a garbage bucket. Their ability to rebound more than makes up for their pedestrian shooting percentages, and can lead to a lot of easy buckets.
Main Weakness: Lack of a true ballhandler. In the 2011 Eurobasket, which featured the same backcourt, Slovenia barely had more assists than they did turnovers. This is mainly because Dragic and Lakovic are scoring combo guards more than anything else. But it's also because the team has a ton of shot creators who can score on their own. So there's no real need to do a lot of dishing. The high turnover rate can be explained by the frequent forays of guards into the paint.
Final Verdict: Slovenia boasts a strong team going into this Eurobasket, but they just look really flawed to me. They're already dealing with having no true distributor, and relying on two score-first guards. But when you combine that with their lack of defensive post presence, I have a hard time seeing them win against teams of similar caliber. I'm really not confident about ranking them over Croatia, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt because their talent is just that much higher, and Croatia is nearly as flawed.
FIBA World Ranking: 16th
2011 Eurobasket Result: 13th
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: After the breakup of Yugoslavia, Croatia was one of the world's most elite teams. They featured legends such as Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Drazen Petrovic, Zan Tabak, and Stojko Vrankovic. Ever since then, the team hasn't been able to make a real impact. They're still a strong nation by European standards, hanging around the fringes of the elite and sporting many accomplished Euroleague players. But they've only made one World Championship and one Olympics in the last 15 years, and haven't been able to find a real star to lead them.
Their star won't appear for them this year, but the team still looks mighty formidable. Roko Ukic, a former Toronto Raptor, will be returning to the team after an injury in 2011. Additionally, Dario Saric will join the team after rising through the ranks, and looks to drag players out of the paint with his excellent shooting and mobility. Saric figured to be a late lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft. Joining Saric in the front court is Ante Tomic, a center who wasn't with Croatia during their 2012 qualification campaign, yet was their primary scorer in the 2011 Eurobasket. He has an excellent touch from close to medium range, and he can score over virtually any other player one on one. Rounding out the Croatian stars is Bojan Bogdanovic, who has ridiculous three point accuracy and can hit just about any shot if he's set. Dontaye Draper, the team's American import, will spend time at point, but he will probably sit on the bench behind Roko Ukic.
Croatia will be missing a couple of players though. Marko Popovic, a quick and dynamic scorer, will sit out the tournament due to health reasons. Zoran Planinic a tall point guard in a shooting guard's body, will sit out for similar reasons.
Play Style: Croatia is one of the best examples you'll find of the classical European pick and roll style. Roko Ukic and Dontaye Draper are both talented assist men, and they're pretty good at finding a way of getting it to big men coming off the roll in the post. Croatia will also dump it down to Tomic in the post a lot, and let him go to work. I'm not sure if Saric will be given that same responsibility, as I can't find any of their warmup of qualification games. Drive and dish is the main name of the game, as is a lot of passing on the perimeter. Defensively, like Slovenia, they play a man-to-man strategy that basically functions as a zone. They defend drives into the paint well, but they often leave a man open next to the basket or on the perimeter. Croatia is a high scoring team though, so that makes up for it.
Main Strength: Offensive Rebounding. I know I said this about Slovenia, but the two teams are very similar. Croatia's shooting numbers are a bit better and they get to the line more, but they rely equally on offensive boards. Like Slovenia, they drive into and crowd the paint a lot.
Main Weakness: Overall defense. This is kind of a broad thing to say, but it's true. Croatia just isn't very good at stopping other teams. They don't trap despite relying on fast offense, their clog of players in the paint is regularly subverted by good passing, and they're terrible at defending the three point line.
Final Verdict: Croatia, if they finish fourth in Group C, will be easily the best team left out of the Eurobasket's second round, and will go home sorely disappointed after a similar result in 2011. But in a group with three deadly offenses, I just don't see Croatia being able to outright outscore them all. Still, I'm not at all confident in putting them here, and the homecourt advantage they'll no doubt get by being a stone's throw away from Slovenia will help out a lot. I really would like to see how Bogdanovic and Saric are doing in a couple of years, though.
FIBA World Ranking: Tied for 50th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 11th Place
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: Georgia is a total newcomer on the international basketball scene. The country itself has existed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but their first appearance in an international competition came in 2011's Eurobasket. There, they benefited from an extremely weak Group D and were able to advance to the second group stage, getting totally creamed by everyone but Macedonia. This year sees them in a much more challenging group, and with a weaker team. Zaza Pachulia and Tornike Shengelia, the two NBA players who helped lead the charge in 2011, won't be participating this fall.
They'll still have a few veterans to lead the charge, though. Manuchar Markoishvili will be the team's primary scorer, using his long-range shooting and excellent courtvision. Viktor Sankidze, otherwise known as "Air Georgia" will be the team's second banana. Needless to say, his game defies his balding head and old looks. George Tsintsadze brings up the team's point guard position as a legitimate triple-double threat. Georgia's last major player is Ricky Hickman, their American import. He's a score-first point guard who sprung up out of nowhere after languishing in lower-tier European domestic leagues. Nikoloz Tsktishvili, a former lottery pick who spent some time in the NBA, will see minutes on the bench.
Play Style: Georgia uses a very strange offense that I have a hard time deciphering and describing. The best description that I can give for it is that it emphasizes shooting and athleticism. Players never set screens, and players never really isolate, either. Plays usually stem from a pass to a big standing on the wing, who just operates the offense from there. They can also stem from players running around the perimeter until they can penetrate with a full head of steam or find someone who is doing so. Somehow, they manage to find holes in the other team's defense and obtain easy paths to the rim. They also rely on mid-range shots, which their players seem to find with ease as well. Defensively, Georgia oscillates between a zone and man-to-man. They like to play uptempo so they'll trap when it suits them, but they also like to prioritize protecting the paint.
Main Strength: Rebounding. Georgia is one of the tournament's best teams when it comes to the boards. Obviously, their size helps them when it comes to the defensive side, as does their zone defense. But offensively, Georgia likes to drive the paint a lot, resulting in rebounding and free throw opportunities.
Main Weakness: Without Pachulia and Shengelia, Georgia won't have nearly the post presence it once had. The team is going to be one of the tallest in the tournament, but the vast majority of the scoring is going to come from the back court. It also kind of messes with their offensive scheme, because they don't have the pass-minded big that can dish it on the wing anymore.
Final Verdict: Georgia's upset victory to place third in Group D was a nice one, but I don't see them reclaiming past glory. This Georgian team isn't very deep, and the absence of their two NBA players will force them to rely upon players from their domestic league, which isn't very good. Moreover, this is probably the toughest Group in the 2013 Eurobasket, and all four teams above them are a step ahead in talent. They'll beat the Czech Republic easily, but anything more than that would be a miracle.
6. Czech Republic
FIBA World Ranking: 61st
Eurobasket 2011 Result: Did Not Qualify
Team Overview: It might surprise you to know that the Czech Republic has qualified for the Eurobasket twice before. Neither of those teams went very far, but both of them featured former NBA player Jiri Welsch, who will also play for the Czech Republic this season. He'll provide some quick hands on defense while providing the ability to shoot threes off of the dribble. Bringing him help will be Jan Vesely, the developing big man currently stationed with the Washington Wizards. Also helping out is Tomas Satoransky, an early second round pick of the Wizards last year. He's an athletic small forward with an uncanny touch near the basket. Outside of NBA players and NBA Alumni, David Jelinek is the Czech Republic's next rising star. He's a high scoring shooting guard who can nail threes and sink layups in traffic. Gluing the team together will be Lubos Barton, a double-double type of small forward with good hands. Missing from the team will be Petr Benda, who was ridiculously consistent in the post.
Play Style: From what I can gather (which is very little because few clips exist of this team) the Czech Republic utilize a pretty traditional European-style offense. The plays I saw them execute were pick and rolls, off ball screens, and passes around the perimeter. They played a lot of help defense as well, especially in the paint.
Main Strength: Having a variety of scoring options. Most teams of their caliber have to rely on a few set scorers to do all of the work. But the Czech Republic goes pretty deep with whom they rely upon to score, and different players can spring up and contribute in different games.
Main Weakness: Three point shooting. The team averaged 28.7% during qualification games, and I don't think Jan Vesely will do anything to help that stat. In fact, their best shooter only nailed 36% of his attempts.
Final Verdict: The bottom line is that the Czech Republic got in this tournament by beating up on Belarus and Portugal, while stealing a game from a depleted Turkish team. They have a few exciting prospects, but none of them have blossomed yet, and the team is essentially a collection of role players and a bad quality domestic league at this point. I see no potential way for them to win a game in this group, but I think that they could make some noise in 2015 or 2017.
Who do you see winning Group C this year? Let us know in the comments!
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- Eurobasket 2013 Group D Preview
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