That's right! We're less than 24 hours away from the final stage of the Eurobasket! After two grueling weeks of Group play, the competition will finally be decided by a 8 team single elimination tournament. The intrigue doesn't stop there, as the teams who lose in the first round will need to win their next consolation round game if they are to punch their ticket to the 2014 FIBA World Championship in Spain.
Easily the most intriguing thing about this tournament is the parity among the teams. Most years, the tournament has two or three elite teams that seem destined to meet in the final. But this year, I honestly wouldn't be surprised to see any of these 8 teams win it all (yes, even Ukraine!). So if you haven't followed this tournament so far or just want a refresher, read on for a thorough review of all 8 teams. And if you don't have a dog in the fight, then feel free to pick one! It won't be a rumble that you'll soon forget.
Matchup 1: Serbia vs. Spain
Team Overview: Serbia's one of the youngest teams in this tournament, but they've shocked Europe with their extremely strong performances against tough teams. They're really inconsistent though, with convincing losses to lower-tier teams like Macedonia and Montenegro. It's been argued that Spain tanked their final game in order to face Serbia, but it's hard to tell whether there's truth to that.
The Lowdown: Serbia, under the hand of the experienced Dusan Ivkovic, has a very solid and reliable offense. It's not pick and roll heavy like most European offenses, though they do utilize that play sometimes. Instead, they like to start the ball off with a swingman on the wing, letting everyone else work off the ball while they try to create on their own. The main advantage that I'd give Serbia is their ability to adjust to their opponent. If the opposing team has poor interior defense, they'll post them up all night long. If an opposing team is running a zone, they'll take threes. They have enough young talent to adjust effectively, though Krstic is the universal lynchpin of their offense that will always get touches. The main two things that work against Serbia are their inexperience and their overreliance on Nenad Krstic. Krstic is their only real low post threat, so when he can't get it going, they rely too much on their guards. In terms of inexperience, two of their four best scorers, Nemanja Nedovic and Bogdan Bogdanovic, are 22. This wouldn't be a factor on its' own, but both of them have been really on and off, especially in terms of three point shooting. Defensively, Serbia uses a strict man-to-man.
Team Overview: Spain came into this competition with a lot of questions surrounding the team, and those questions are still there. They barely made it into the tournament, haven't had a consistent offense, and have fallen short against some of the tournament's better teams. But they still boast some of the best talent available, and have the tournament's best post player, so they head into the Quarter-Finals with a lot of expectations.
The Lowdown: Spain is a team that doesn't have one defined offensive style. They have a ton of creative guards on offense who can make things happen, but it's rare that they'll be put in some sort of rigid scheme. Instead, they run different plays every time down the floor, making for an entertaining game. Even a pick and roll is rare to see, as Gasol is used as more of a passing outlet. Additionally, Spain's guards are so quick that they can sneakily cut to the rim for easy points, with no screen required. They don't isolate anyone but Gasol too often, but they aren't hesitant to feed the hot hand. This directionless style can hurt Spain at times, especially when Gasol is out of the game. Defensively, Spain loves to pressure downcourt and trap for steals in the backcourt. If they can get out and running, Spain is probably the best transition team in the entire tournament. In terms of their weaknesses, it's hard to pinpoint one area. They've had a myriad of problems in their losses, including turnovers, three point shooting, and rebounding. The best way I can explain it is that Spain is extremely reliant on the individual talents of their players. If a few key cogs are facing tough defensive matchups or having a bad day, the entire machine can fall apart.
This game's a really hard one to predict. I feel like Spain has the matchup advantage against Krstic and superior guards, so there's that. But Serbia probably has better shooting from beyond the arc, and a more organized defense. In the end I'd give a slight edge to Spain, just because of their experience and star power.
Matchup 2: Slovenia vs France
Team Overview: France came into this competition with the thought that they'd have no centers to rely upon, and defensively, that's true. But their small stature has given them a ton of matchup advantages, and they've turned into the most offensively powerful team in the tournament. They can get obliterated on the inside, but their star power could carry them far.
The Lowdown: Offensively, France can come off as unrehearsed. Compared to the other teams in the tournament, they don't have players move around nearly as often, and they'll give the ball up to a wing a lot of the time. But upon closer inspection, France's offense works extremely well. The team's smaller stature, especially when Diaw is at center, can create a lot of mismatches in their favor. They also have the best paint penetrator in the tournament in Tony Parker, which creates a lot of opportunities on it's own. Most effective is their players' willingness to work off the ball, paricularly Parker and De Colo. If you have both of those guys running around while someone else has the ball, you're almost guaranteed to get an open shot. Lastly, Alexis Ajinca has really evolved through the course of this tournament, turning from a huge defensive liability into a legitimate post scoring big who's still a huge defensive liability. If you were to find a weakness in France's offense, it would definitely be three point shooting. Batum is really the only consistently reliable shooter from that range, so if you can shut him down, France can become really one-dimensions. Defensively, despite their small size, France doesn't trap a lot. They try to front their defenders sometimes, but generally they play a tough man-to-man.
Team Overview: The host nation came into this tournament with a lot of expectations, and they've completely lived up to the hype. Goran Dragic has emerged as the team's star, leading them to victory against mammoths like Spain, Greece, and Italy. They hold three losses, but two of those were in meaningless games against Finland and Poland, which Slovenia may have intentionally dropped.
The Lowdown: Slovenia's another traditional pick and roll European team, similar in scheme to Croatia. They're not as strong as Croatia in the post, but they do use Begic and Vidmar on the roll a lot. However, their quickness and creativity on the perimeter has really been what's carried them this far. Goran Dragic has played as good as I've ever seen, using an array of fakes and jab steps to get easy paths to the rim. His bother, Zoran Dragic, is a defensive monster. Both brothers have an excellent repertoire, and they work especially well together on the break. The biggest surprise for Slovenia has been Domen Lorbek, an excellent backup guard who's carried the offense while the Dragic's are resting. It wouldn't be too far out to say that he's been the X-Factor that's been the difference between a good and great Slovenian team. Defensively, Slovenia uses a strict man-to-man. They're not very good at stopping penetration, but they do well against opposing back to the basket centers, especially with Begic in the paint.
I have a feeling this will be one of the highest scoring games in the tournament. Slovenia can provide little to resist France's excellent paint attack, but France won't be able to force a lot of turnovers from Slovenia, and they don't have very strong of a paint defense themselves. I think France's athleticism will be a definite factor, but so will Slovenia's overwhelming home court advantage. My mind goes with France, but my gut goes with Slovenia. I always go with my gut.
Matchup 3: Lithuania vs. Italy
Team Overview: With the absences of Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari, the expectations for this Italian team were understandably low. But the emergence of recent Detroit Pistons acquisition Luigi Datome and the defense of Marco Cusin have really lifted this team to high places. They swept a relatively weak group, but their perimeter oriented attack can beat almost anybody when they're hot.
The Lowdown: Italy is another team that uses the traditional European-style offense, opening up almost every possessions with a high pick and roll. But, in contrast to other teams, Italy has almost no post player to speak of. Alessandro Gentile is their panic button when they really want to try in the post, but other than that, they're really perimeter oriented. They don't even have their guard drive into the lane that often, preferring to pull up for a lot of mid-range shots. Some players (particularly Bellinelli) will isolate for threes, which only adds to the inconsistency of their offense. All in all, Italy is a team that sinks or swims depending on how well they're shooting, and how effectively they can rebound. Defensively, Italy is really good at defending the penetrator, but they're bad at defending legitimate post players, and their ability to rotate out to open shooters can be spotty.
Team Overview: The basketball-crazed country of Lithuania always has high expectations heading into the Eurobasket, but most knew that this was going to be a rebuilding year. The team had a couple of key absences in the backcourt, and the young Jonas Valanciunas was expected to take on a bigger role. Still, the team will want to wipe away the memories of the home loss to Macedonia two years ago, and a strong showing in the second round proves that they came to play.
The Lowdown: Lithuania's a team that has a lot of talent, especially in the post. But their lack of a true point guard has killed them this year. Once a traditional pick and roll-heavy team, Lithuania has evolved into a team centered almost completely around the post. Their bigs are certainly capable of scoring with their back to the basket, but all of them are more suited to the pick and roll. Mantas Kalnietis and Tomas Delininkaitis can ocasionally get it down there, but neither of them have very good court vision. Even Lithuania's guards and swingmen are post oriented, leaving the team with a lack of three point shooting at times. Generally speaking, only Linas Kleiza is allowed to isolate, but their rotations are so infrequent that all of the team's roles are subject to change. This inconsistency in the lineups is a weakness at times, but Lithuania's main weakness is their lack of ball movement. Without a true PG, they simply don't pass the ball a lot. Furthermore, the slowness of their swingmen can lead to some bad turnovers and transition defense. Defensively, Lithuania started off using a zone, but now they mainly use a man-to-man scheme with a good amount of trapping.
It's a classic case of the perimeter versus the paint in this matchup, as Lithuania will attack the paint while Italy will fire up an endless array of jumpshots. The key, for me, will be how well each team can diversify their offense. Lithuania's proven that they can shoot threes when they need to, but Italy really hasn't done well establishing themselves in the post. I'll go with Lithuania here.
Matchup 4: Croatia vs. Ukraine
Team Overview: After a disastrous start against Spain, Croatia has really grown through the course of this tournament and learned how to haul the mail. They haven't lost since, and are looking like the strongest team heading into the Tournament. Their biggest accomplishments involve winning a double-OT thriller against Greece and narrowly closing out host nation Slovenia.
The Lowdown: Croatia is a pretty traditional European team. They love to utilize the high pick and roll as the basis for all of their offense, using it to get a speedy guard in the paint or get a big man the ball near the basket. They do use it to a fault though. Once the pick is set, they're not afraid of making a dangerous pass into the paint, or trusting a big man to pass out of double coverage. This results in some really nice looking plays sometimes, but it also results in a lot of turnovers. When they're not getting into halfcourt sets, Croatia will push the ball up the court, looking to get a quick three point attempt. Late in the game, their offense is a different story. At this point, they'll usually rely on their star players to create baskets for them. For example, they'll dump it off to Ante Tomic on the block, let Bojan Bogdanovic work on the baseline, or let Dontaye Draper and Roko Ukic jack some threes from the perimeter. This strategy is effective when Croatia has the talent advantage, but it could really hurt them against a team that's at a superior talent level (Namely France and Spain). Defensively, Croatia will switch on screens and do whatever they can to stay behind their man. If it looks like someone's going to get an open layup, or if anyone is too close to the basket, Croatia will foul. It seems lazy, but it would work to their advantage against bad foul shooting teams, like Serbia.
Team Overview: Ukraine is hosting the Eurobasket in 2013 and came into this Eurobasket with a relatively young team and lots of lost players, so it was generally assumed that this would be a rebuilding year. Yet, Mike Fratello has shaped his team into one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. Once thought to be the fluke of three straight clutch shots from Sergii Gladyr in three straight games, they proved their legitimacy with a second round win over Serbia.
The Lowdown: Ukraine's a team that uses a rigid system of offense to get what they want. They don't have any creative passers, and their most prominent scoring talents (Pooh Jeter and Sergii Gladyr) are pretty one-dimensional. So they run a lot of specific plays to get everybody involved, and avoid the pitfalls of the team's shortcomings. Still, Gladyr and Jeter are the definite X-Factors for this team, and some great drives from Jeter or deep threes from Gladyr are the difference between success and failure for this team. Generally, Ukraine likes to use their gigantic big men for high screens, bringing the other team's defenders away from the basket. Most of Ukraine's bigs can hit a mid-range jumper, so they're pretty effective at keeping opposing defenders from camping in the paint. Additionally, they'll go pretty deep into their rotation, using 10 men every single night. Defensively, Ukraine uses a really tight and effective zone. They're really good at stopping opposing centers and penetration, but they're dreadful at stopping the three, as evidenced by their destruction at the hands of Latvia.
This will basically be a home game for Croatia, as the border is only an hour or two away. Furthermore, Ukraine's had the smallest amount of fan support in the entire tournament. In the one Ukrainian game I attended, I didn't spot a single fan. (Those clapping for the team were Slovenian.) Regardless, it will be interesting to see this battle of the bigs, as Ukraine tries to draw Croatia's bigs out of the paint and Croatia tries to funnel their offense through the paint. Croatia's fouling won't work well for them, as Ukraine doesn't get to the line very often. Croatia's solid three point shooting should work against Ukraine's zone, though. Honestly, when this game enters crunch time, it will be a battle of Jeter and Gladyr versus Bogdanovic and Tomic. My money's on Croatia, but it could easily go the other way.
Who goes all the way?
At this point, my favorite teams to get to the final are Croatia and Slovenia. Croatia has a really well-rounded attack and an experienced core, along with a well-rounded defense that doesn't have any outright weaknesses. Meanwhile, Slovenia has a great homecourt advantage and a star that can't be effectively contained by anyone. I also predicted Lithuania and Spain to win, but I think they'll lose in the semi-finals. Lithuania is too slow on the perimeter and their stars don't shoot free throws well. Spain was convincingly beaten by Slovenia earlier in the tournament, and Slovenia is better defensively on the perimeter.
A final of Slovenia and Croatia would be what Spanish-speaking soccer fans would call a "Superclasico". The game happened in this tournament once before, with Croatia winning an overtime thriller on a controversial non foul call. The final would be similarly close, but I'll go ahead and predict a Croatian victory. This team has made a lot of key adjustments, and they sport some of the best players in the tournament, and Tomic is better than Begic inside.
So, there you have it. Your 2013 Eurobasket champion will be....Croatia!
Make sure to send me a pizza if my prediction brings you any money or fame.
Who do you think will win the 2013 Eurobasket? Let us know in the poll and comments!