Both groups are entering their final day of play as the remaining 12 teams duke it out. There's 8 spots available, only two teams are eliminated, and no team has a secure seed. Tomorrow will be Group E's denouement, so here's a quick rundown of each team, their final match, and how far they can expect to go when it's all said and done.
Before I go on, I'd just like to note that FIBA's tie breakers are kind of screwy. At first, seeding is determined by the reasonable head-to-head record. But, if there's a three or four way tie and some of the teams can't be separated, they caluclate things by a "goal average" rather than a point differential. It's the number of points scored divided by number of points conceded, and it makes everything incredibly difficult to predict and explain until a set scenario is in place.
Game 1: Latvia vs. Belgium
Latvia's Situation: 1-4, need to win today and have Ukraine lose in order to get into the tournament.
The Breakdown: Generally speaking, Latvia is a run 'n gun team. They're undersized, unload tons of threes, force tons of turnovers, and can really suffer when they're not crashing the boards. But they do differ from a run and gun team that you might see in the NBA. For example, when playing in the post defensively, they refuse to double-team or try to refuse the entry pass. As a result, every team that's beaten them has had one of their bigs go off for ridiculous amounts of points.
Latvia also doesn't really force the pace of the game, either. They run a really responsible half-court offense, throwing out a lot of HORNS, getting players open on the wings, and cutting to the post. Problem is, the team has absolutely no ability to score in the post or isolate. Generally, when the team wants to get near the basket, they'll bake a gutsy pass to a guy who's in deep, and try to have him draw a foul. Furthermore, none of their players are athletic, creative, or speedy enough to score against opponents in one-on-one situations on a regular basis.
Make no mistake, though. This Latvian team can beat anybody, and they should be able to cruise past Belgium and have at least a fighting shot at getting into the tournament. When they get hot from three, stay off the free throw line, and keep up with the boards, they're pretty hard to beat. But at the end of the day, they're really defensively flawed in the post, and as long as they continue to sacrifice post play in the name of perimeter defense, there's no way they could beat a power like Slovenia, Croatia, or Spain in the first round.
Belgium's Situation: 0-5, Eliminated
The Breakdown: Belgium is a really, really well coached team. They run really sophisticated offensive sets, have a diverse set of weapons, and play a really tight zone defense. But they have three critical flaws working against them. For one, the team is a glorified collection of role players. I don't mean to diss on guys who have infinitely more skill than me, but in the context of the tournament, they just don't have a top 30 player. Furthermore, all of their players have a very specific function, so when the opposing team figures out how to neutralize their specific role, things can fall apart quickly. In other words, they don't have a Kevin Durant to pass to when Thabo Sefolosha's luck on corner threes runs out.
The second flaw is a general lack of size. Unlike Latvia, Belgium covers for their lack of size with an excellent zone defense that's at least partially stifled every opponent they've played against. But once the other team figures out how to draw the defense, weave between the players individual zones, or gets hot from three, Belgium's house of cards falls.
The third flaw is their over-reliance on the three. They're not on a Finland or Latvia level in terms of threes taken, and Axel Hervelle has done a good job of keeping them reliable from inside the arc. But the fact remains that Sam Van Rossom and Jonathan Tabu are primarily reliant on the three for their scoring. And when their threes don't fall or they don't take enough, Belgium is liable to get torched.
All of that said, I think that Belgium will lose for a final time tonight. They did well to get to the second round, but they' got here by beating up on Great Britain, Israel, and Germany. Furthermore, they've never been able to sustain a consistent level of play against a top team, and I would consider Latvia closer to the elite. One thing's for sure: There will be threes.
Game 2: Ukraine vs. Lithuania
Ukraine's Situation: 2-2, will advance if they win, or if they lose and Latvia loses. They will automatically clinch third with a win. They can rise as high as second in the group, should they win and Serbia lose.
The Breakdown: Ukraine's the biggest surprise of this tournament, by far. After getting obliterated by the Latvians in their first game of second round play, many thought that their Cinderella run was over. But they came back strong with a win over Serbia, and they look like they could be this year's Macedonia.
What's working for them? Well, defensively, Mike Fratello has coached them into a very excellent zone. The defense has the usual advantages and flaws of a typical zone, with the players fitting the roles of zone defenders pretty perfectly. (IE, a big guy patrolling the paint, speedy guards playing the passing lanes, et cetera.) They're also liable to get obliterated by a three point shooting. (See: Loss to Latvia.)
They also did a good job of not falling into the trap of over-utilizing Pooh Jeter on offense. Jeter is a player who's somewhat on par with McCalebb's talent, but he's carefully fallen in line with Ukraine's offensive scheme rather than being relied upon as the primary scorer. This has allowed the talents of other players, like Sergii Gladyr and Kyryl Natyazhko, to shine through. Heck, even Mazym Korniyenko was able to light things up against Serbia two nights ago.
The key to Ukraine's success, in my opinion, is their extremely thick playbook. They run tons of different plays, ranging from HORNS to pick and roll to post ups to other stuff that I probably can't name. The bottom line is that these players know each other, and always give their teammates a good chance to score. Unlike a lot of the teams in the tournament, they have a lot of big 7-footers to set screens with, which is a huge advantage. They might not always seem like the focus of the offense, but they're always heavily involved. Their ability to set a variety of screens on different spots on the floor in the grander offensive scheme, coupled with their ability to roll to the rim, has paid huge dividends for Ukraine.
Lastly, you can't discount the impact of Sergii Gladyr. He basically sealed all three of Ukraine's early victories single-handedly, expressing his fantastic stroke from behind the arc. That's all I need to say about that.
Honestly, I could see Ukraine pulling off an upset tonight. They've got the talent to at least provide a stiff match to Lithuania down low, and the zone defense that they've been rehearsing is exactly what they need to force Lithuania out onto the perimeter. Furthermore, Lithuania's lack of speed from their guards won't really allow them to weave into the zone really well, and their lack of passing ability won't allow them to get out of traps really easily.
Still, Lithuania does have the superior talent overall, and they'll no doubt assume the rebounding advantage. Further still, Lithuania is capable of dropping three point bombs if you leave them open, and the fluid nature of their lineup leaves them as pretty unpredictable overall. It's really a toss up in my opinion, but Ukraine has a better shot than you'd think.
Moving forward, Ukraine really has the tools to compete with anybody that doesn't take too many threes. So far, they've been able to compete with higher quality teams with good coaching and randomly good performances from role players, but I don't see it as something that can be consistently sustained through three straight games. Dark horse? Yes. Contender? No.
Lithuania's Situation: 3-1, guaranteed to qualify regardless of result. A win and a French victory would guarantee them first, while a win would guarantee them at least third. A loss would push them to third or fourth.
The Breakdown: The problems with this team are the same that they've always been, but the talent of Lithuania has allowed them to shine through. They were able to roll over a centerless French team and a not so talented Belgian team, but they really struggled against a perimeter-oriented Latvia, and they had huge troubles against the quicker guards in their group, like Nemanja Nedovic and Tyrese Rice.
At the end of the day, Lithuania needs to do two things....
Firstly, they need to define a clear rotation. Players are pulled in and out seemingly at random, with Mantas Kalnietis being the only player guaranteed to average over 30 minutes a game. As a result, the team hasn't been able to develop much of a repertoire with each other, or define clear roles. This can really hurt them in close games, especially when the other team is applying a lot of pressure.
Secondly, they need to continue to develop a new style of play. Their new coach, Jonas Kazlauskas, has done a good job of breaking the team away from the rigid tenacity of Kestutis Kemzura. Namely, he's allowed players to trap on the perimeter defensively and isolate offensively, which has allowed the team to adjust to some of their quickness and ballhandling flaws.
Moving forward, Lithuania will face an arduous journey. Pretty much any potential Group F matchup will see them face a really tough guard core, which doesn't bode well for their flaws. But, like Ukraine above, they've got a chance to beat any team in the tournament. Unfortunately, unless Kleiza lives up to his expectations or Valanciunas explodes, I just don't see them being anything more than a dark horse.
Game 3: Serbia vs. France
Serbia's Situation: 3-1, guaranteed advancement. Can fall to fourth with a loss, can go up to first with a win and a Lithuania win.
The Breakdown: Serbia's success in this tournament has been marked by the emergence of a new generation of talent. Seemingly out of nowhere, the team has come to rely upon the services or Nemanja Bjelica, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Nemanja Nedovic. All three of them combine to form a pretty mean back court, with all three of them bombing threes and Bjelica doing a good job of getting into the paint as well.
The key for these players, especially Bogdanovic and Nedovic, is consistency. Their shot selection can hurt the team's offense at times, as can their inability to hit threes. A common link in all three of Serbia's losses was the poor performance of at least one of those two while shooting from the floor.
But when you get right down to it, Nenad Krstic is the key to Serbia's success. The team really suffered against Montenegro without him, and he's a lynchpin of their offense, setting reliable screens and drawing the defense with his back to the basket play. He's shined against Lithuania's bigs, and really only saw trouble when he was constantly trapped by Macedonia's D. He can succeed against pretty much anyone in the tournament, but it will be interesting to see how he might deal with a Gasol or a Tomic in the post.
In their final Group E game, Serbia should be in a barnburner with France. Serbia has the definite advantage down low and the quickness necessary to keep up with them on the perimeter, but France has more talent and athleticism. The book on beating Serbia seems to be written simply by outscoring them, playing at a fast pace, and taking advantage of their weak bench. France is capable of doing all these things, but it all depends on how their defensive strategy works out. If they go to a zone in order to cover for their bad interior defense, Serbia could heat up from three. If they trust Ajinca on Krstic, they might give up 30 points to one player. It's kind of a damned if you do damned if you don't situation for both teams, but the game should go down to the wire.
Looking forward, Serbia definitely has the tools to go all the way. The only questions in my mind are their general lack of experience in the backcourt and their general lack of defense. They don't have one specific flaw like other teams do, but it's easy to see them dropping a game for a variety of reasons. I'll say that they're a contender, but far from a sure thing.
France's Situation: 3-1, guaranteed advancement. A win and Lithuanian loss would guarantee them first place, while a loss could land them as low as third.
The Breakdown: A lot of teams were missing star players this year, but no team was as depleted in one position as France is now. France, simply put, doesn't have a reliable defensive center. The players on their roster are Alexis Ajinca and Johan Petro, both of whom haven't shined on the international level. They've really struggled to match up with opposing centers, and they haven't been able to play very good zone defense in general. Because of this, they've struggled against smaller-time teams like Belgium and Latvia before wiping the floor with their talent.
Another weakness of the French team is their lack of three point shooting. Nicholas Batum is the only real specialist on the team, while everyone else is shaky at best. When Batum isn't hitting, their offense can become really penetration-heavy and one-dimensional.
You might think that the French offense isn't what's the problem. But really, it is. The team rebounds well enough as a whole, and their defense is hopeless in certain areas. The offense is what keeps France going, and in both of their losses, they scored less than 80 points.
Thus, if any team wants to beat France, they have to make them become one-dimensional. Make sure Ajinca can't get position in the paint, lock down Batum on the perimeter, and let Tony Parker roam free. Then again, you could just beat France with your bigs. Lithuania managed to do it.
As I mentioned above, France should be in a really tight contest with Serbia tomorrow. But beyond that, I just can't see them winning the tournament, wherever they end up. Eventually, they're going to come across a team that can exploit them down low, and that'll be all she wrote. Plain and simple.
What do you think is going to go down in Group E? Let us know in the comments!