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 B.
FIBA World Ranking: 5th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 5th
Team Overview: The proud Lithuanian team has had a tough go of it these past couple of years. In 2011, the country played host to their first Eurobasket ever, and was stacked with veterans that had previous tournament success. However, they were upset in the quarterfinals by an upstart Macedonian team. Things only got worse the next Summer, as they had to battle for Olympic qualification. Despite the inclusion of Linas Kleiza, they again suffered a heartbreaking loss in the quarterfinals, this time to Russia. It was the worst Olympic finish in the history of the nation.
In 2013, Lithuania is going through a bit of a predictable re-tooling. Kestutis Kemzura, their head coach since 2009, has been replaced by Jonas Kazlauskas. He's the former head coach of Russian champion and Euroleague runner-up CSKA Moscow. Also gone are a slew of recognizable faces. Sarunas Jasikevicus, Rimantas Kaukenas, Darius Songaila, and Simas Jasaitis will all be absent from this year's team. All of them were over 30 year old veterans that provided valuable minutes for Lithuania in both tournaments.
But Lithuania has the deepest talent pool in Europe, and the new blood in the team could be a breath of fresh air. A more experienced Jonas Valanciunas could be the best Lithuanian center since Arvydas Sabonis. Donatas Motiejunas, the rookie who got spot minutes in Houston, will be another excellent back to the basket option. Providing veteran experience in the frontcourt will be the Lavrinovic twins, of which Darjus will get the majority of the minutes. Lithuania's back court isn't full of slouches, either. Obviously, Linas Kleiza will be their primary scorer, providing consistent shooting from beyond the arc. Mantas Kalnietis will function in a similar role, rolling off of picks for easy scores. Mindaugas Kuzminskas will also chip in his share of points, providing a level of athleticism that isn't usually seen in this country. Renaldas Seibutis is another excellent scorer, with an uncanny ability to nail shots in traffic.
Play Style: I know it might seem unusual for me to mention so many names in the Team Overview, but if you've ever watched this team play, you'll understand. Lithuania doesn't have a single star that carries them to victory. Rather, they rely on a consistent team play to carry them to victory. In 2011, they had 7 players averaging 8.4 PPG or more, and their regular rotation usually runs 10 deep. The team is extremely unselfish on offense, and extremely responsible with their shots. Often, their highest scorer will simply be the guy with the best matchup advantage on that day. Defensively, they like to run a wide zone. Players will cover their matchup back to the three point line, so team's usually have the most success in the mid-range. Lithuania also very rarely pressures the ball, only double-teaming in the post.
Main Strength: Size. With teams like Spain and France losing quality big men this year, Lithuania's size will be a huge advantage for them in the later rounds. They have more offensively minded big men than any other team, and they'll be able to rely upon them for more than pick and rolls. Lithuania has also struggled a bit with rebounding in the past, so this should shore up that weakness nicely.
Main Weakness: A lack of speed. As can be observed from simply looking at their roster, Lithuania doesn't really have a lot of guards on their team. They only have one true point guard on their roster, and he'll only get 8-10 minutes a game behind Mantas Kalnietis, who normally plays shooting guard. They shouldn't have a lot of problems when it comes to ballhandling, because Lithuania operates a strict and efficient system. But it will be a real problem defensively, because a lack of speed and ability to pressure in the backcourt is what killed them in 2011 against Macedonia. Their traditional zone defense will allow quick guards like Bo McCalebb, Tony Parker, and Juan Carlos Navarro to get whatever shot they want from mid-range. Lithuania basically accepts this flaw and covers other areas, which can really bite them when it matters most.
Final Verdict: Lithuania has a young and exciting team. Some of the players they have now have the potential to be the best crop of Lithuanians in years. I don't know if I could chalk up Lithuania as the best team in this tournament with their ballhandling and zone problems, but I'd definitely consider them a contender for the gold. How far they go depends on how well they can exploit their advantages down low and hide their weaknesses at the top of the key.
FIBA World Ranking: 33rd
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 4th
NBA Players: Pero Antic (Atlanta Hawks)
Team Overview: The young nation of Macedonia shocked the continent last summer when they managed to upset hosts Lithuania in the quarterfinals of the 2011 Eurobasket. Not many predicted them to even get to the tournament, but they managed to play to the level of every team they faced. They competed with Spain in the semi-final and coming within a hair of winning the third place game. They came back to earth in last year's Olympic qualifying tournament, though. Their lack of bigs killed them in a loss to the Dominican Republic, and they were left without what would have been the perfect capstone to a great Eurobasket run.
However, they're back this year, and they look to be just as good as ever. This is for all intents and purposes, exactly the same team we've seen for the past two years, though it will be the last tournament for the team's third best scorer, Vlado Illievski. But really, aside from Illievski, there's only two names you need to know. The first is that of Bo McCalebb. He's one heck of a scoring guard, and somebody who clearly has the tools to make it to the NBA. He can create his own shot, bomb you from long range, and get into the paint with ease. His explosive speed and athleticism might remind you of a certain someone from the Thunder, if he shot threes instead of mid-range jumpers. The other name you need to know is that of Pero Antic. Antic's main weapons are his ability to shoot threes despite his 6'10 height, his strength down low, his good decision making offensively, and his ability to sniff out rebounds. He was picked up by the Hawks this summer.
Play Style: Offensively, Macedonia loves to use tons of off-ball screens, particularly when players cut away from the basket. They're also fond of having players cross sides of the court in an attempt to confuse their defenders or force a mismatch. Obviously, this type of offense gives lots of opportunities for three, but it also spaces the defenders out, opening up a lot of easy post buckets. Bo McCalebb is generally the only player who takes on-ball screens regularly. They're also a fairly up-tempo team, shooting as soon as they get a decent opportunity. Defensively, Macedonia loves to pressure. They have quick guards who love to get out in transition, and they like to force bad shots in the post. As such, they're not a very good rebounding team.
Main Strength: Macedonia's main strength is their ability to compete with virtually any team. Their big three (McCalebb, Antic, and Ilievski) have two very key skills. For one, they can all shoot from any portion of the court, so no defense really stifles them. For two, all three of them can pass well out of traffic and find the open man, so pressure doesn't really get to them either. However, this is also a weakness, as it's rare for all three players to have a good game and carry the team to an easy victory. As a result, Macedonia finds itself in a lot of close games. Luckily, Bo McCalebb is one of the most clutch players on the planet.
Main Weakness: Macedonia's biggest weakness is their sloppy offense and over-reliance on a few scorers. They don't have a terrific offensive system, so a lot of their plays are simple and rely on their big three to make something happen. As a result, when the team is doing poorly, it's almost always because one or more of the big three are taking bad attempts. By contrast, the rest of the team actually shoots pretty well. But they're limited in their ability to create, so most of the responsibility lies on the shoulders of the big three.
Final Verdict: Macedonia's star power should be enough to carry them out of this group, but I have serious doubts about a repeat of their 2011 run. When it's all said and done, Pero Antic and Vlado Illievski had some atrocious outings last time around, and Bo McCalebb dragged the team in the other direction, kicking and screaming. I'm not expecting them to perform as badly, but I know that Macedonia can be prone to stretches of really bad, languishing offense. And I think it will end up killing them in a key game.
FIBA World Ranking: 77th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 21st
NBA Players: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
Team Overview: For a small nation with a team that's existed for less than 10 years, they're doing pretty good. Widely expected to contend in their first Eurobasket appearance in 2011, they fell flat. Failing to advance out of the first round, they had to qualify for the 2013 Eurobasket last summer. But in that qualification, they destroyed the competition. In a group that featured Serbia and Israel, they managed to go 10-0, easily qualifying. The good news is that they managed to do it without their two NBA stars, Nikola Vucevic and Nikola Pekovic. The bad news is that Nikola Pekovic won't be playing for the team, as he dealt with some intense contract negotations this summer. (It's a lame excuse, I know.)
There's other talent to be found on the Montenegro team, though. They recently replaced American import Taylor Rochestie with an arguably better American import, Tyrese Rice. Rice was a teammate of Reggie Jackson at Boston College, and is an energetic scoring guard in the vein of Bo McCalebb. Vladimir Dasic is a dynamic power forward with the ability to hit it from long range, something which will be essential if they want to get Vucevic down low. Bojan Dubljevic graduated from the U20 team last year, and he made an immediate impact during the qualifying rounds. He averaged 12 points in 21 minutes, and should be the closest thing to a Pekovic replacement that this team has.
Play Style: Offensively, Montenegro likes to work from the inside out. They have some of the best post scorers in the game, so they'll usually just pass it to them in the post and let them go to work. They're trusted to pass out when the going gets tough, and the team has some sharpshooters (like Suad Sehovic) that can really produce. Otherwise, they'll just have their point guard isolate at the top of the key, or have a big man set a pick. They usually don't have the big man roll though, as the pick is mostly for the guard's benefit. Defensively, they go man-to-man and occasionally pressure. They don't double-team in the paint, though.
Main Strength: Montenegro's front court is extremely strong offensively, and will rival that of Lithuania's. If you want to see an old school post battle, I'd highly recommend watching those two teams match up. I'd say that they're the best in the tournament when it comes strictly to scoring ability. Some of them can score with their back to the basket, others can hit threes, and others can even hit turnaround fadeaways.
Main Weakness: Ball movement. Montenegro doesn't have a star guard, nor do they have a tremendous passer. Even if they did, it wouldn't matter anyway, since the bigs have the ball in their hands so much. Turnovers aren't usually a problem, but the team's offense can get really stagnated sometimes. The team simply needs to move the ball around more, especially once things aren't working out in the post.
Final Verdict: Montenegro could have potentially won this group if Pekovic had participated, but without him, they'll struggle to make it out of the group stage. The step down in talent leaves them more prone to dropping a game to someone who can steal well, like Bosnia. Still, they're good enough to win a game they shouldn't win, so they'll probably end up third through some mishmash technicality. I'm not too high on them overall, but I'm putting them above Serbia just because of their veteran experience and offensive advantage over Krstic in the post.
FIBA World Ranking: 12th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 8th
NBA Players: Nemanja Nedovic (Golden State Warriors)
Team Overview: The second strongest basketball country to come out of the breakup of Yugoslavia had a disappointing 2011 campaign. After a new generation of young players was able to regain past glory with a silver medal in 2009 and a 4th place finish in Turkey, the team crashed in Lithuania. They barely made it to the tournament stage, were crushed by Russia in the quarter-finals, and had less than 12 hours to prepare for their next game. Their loss in that tired qualification round game eliminated them from Olympic contention, and questions arose as to how long this generation would last.
Last year wasn't much better, as they barely qualified for the Eurobasket after losses to Montenegro, Israel, and Estonia. This year, the bad news just seems to keep flowing in. Star guard Milos Teodosic was ruled out with an injury, as was a rising young prospect in Vladimir Lucic. If that weren't enough, Dusko Savanovic and Mark Tepic, the team's third and fifth best scorers during last year's qualifying, will also not be with the team. (I don't know why.)
Still, Serbia's youth movement prevails, with only two of their players born before 1987. One of those players happens to be former Thunder center Nenad Krstic, captain and primary scorer of the Serbian team. The other old man, Rasko Katic, is an excellent pick and roll scoring big. Beyond them, Serbia has a stable of pretty good players, all of whom will get featured time. Nemanja Nedovic, who was drafted by the Warriors this June, will do his best to replace Teodosic's role as a scoring point, though he'll probably come off the bench. The other Nemanja, Nemanja Bjelica, was drafted by the Nets in 2010 and showcases an excellent nimbleness and touch near the basket.
Play Style: Offensively, Serbia utilizes the traditional European pick and roll style offense. Aside from the basic play, they like to pass it to the wings and hope that a player can fake out his defender or nail a three. Occasionally they'll let a player isolate at the top of the arc or in the post, but generally they pass around for open opportunities. They also aren't afraid to throw cross-court passes off of a rebound, and get a lot of easy baskets this way. Defensively, they go man-to-man, but they rarely pressure and are more concerned about the drive than they are the shot.
Main Strength: Getting to the line. Overall, their offense is pretty average and their defense is a little weak, but this Serbian team thrives on the free throws. As I said in the section above, Serbia loves to fake out defenders on the wing and roll into the paint, both situations which can cause a lot of contact. Furthermore, their transition opportunities result in a lot of fouls, because the team isn't overly athletic.
Main Weakness: Turnovers. With a lot of new blood coming in and Teodosic gone, Serbia will have a lot of trouble hanging on to the ball. In a lot of their preliminary games this year, Serbia has lost the turnover battle more often than not. They do have impressive shooting and rebounding numbers though, so they usually make up for the difference.
Final Verdict: This team represents the future of Serbia, but the future isn't here yet. Without Teodosic, the team is only left with one reliable veteran. I'd definitely consider their overall talent to be on par with anybody in this group, but with no stand out player to carry them and an incredibly inconsistent rotation, I just can't see them advancing. It's a tough group, and one quality team had to be left out.
FIBA World Ranking: 38th
2011 Eurobasket Result: 21st Place
NBA Players: None
Team Overview: Latvia has never been the basketball hotbed that its' neighbor Lithuania has, but there is definite interest in the country. They've been able to hang around the edges of the Eurobasket for years, but have never really broken through with a cinderella run. Unfortunately for them, their two most recognizable players won't be with the team. Long-time Warriors Center Andris Biedrins (who has a very nice tan) won't be with the team, because of his unexpected trade to the Jazz. Recent NBA Draftee Janis Timma also won't make it, due to illness.
Virtually their entire squad from 2011 will be returning though. Their primary scorer is Rihards Kuksiks, an excellent three point shooter. Not far behind is Janis Blums, who can regularly drain shots from 4 or 5 feet behind the line. Rolandis Freimanis is the team's post player, mostly receiving the ball near the rim and finishing with ease. Also of note is Armands Skele, who battled meningitis to play for his team. Rounding out the roster are the Bertans brothers, Davis and Dairis. Both add to the Latvian armory of snipers.
Play Style: Latvia has no player over the height of 6'9", so they employ a traditional run 'n gun style. They literally take nearly as many threes as they do twos, and they're not afraid to hoist it as soon as they see an opening. But they don't get out on the break as much as you might think. They use the quickness of their guards and throw quick passes to score as much as they do. Defensively, they use a zone and pressure in the paint, but they'll generally leave the other team open for threes. This does get them a good amount of boards for their size, though.
Main Strength: Three point shooting. A lot of European teams can boast that they have good shooters, but Latvia can boast that they have tough shooters. Their players will hit it from really far out, while fading to the side, in another guy's face, and et cetera.
Main Weakness: Inconsistent offense. Obviously, their defense is lacking, but that's what you'd expect from a team of their type. Offensively, though, they run into two kinds of problems. The rather predictable one is that they can get in some real shooting slumps. If the three isn't falling, the team isn't doing well. But sometimes, even when the team has a good offense, it's undermined by their inability to get to the line. They have no post players to speak of, and don't drive the ball a lot. Thus, they don't get fouled a lot.
Final Verdict: Latvia is a gimmicky team. They're a better than the 2011 version of their gimmicky team, but they're still gimmicky, and are still a step below the other teams in overall talent. They're good enough to steal a win from somebody that's not Bosnia, but it would take a really good performance from them or some serious mismanagement from the other teams for Latvia to advance.
6. Bosnia and Herzegovina
FIBA World Ranking: Tied for 50th
Eurobasket 2011 Result: 17th Place
NBA Players: Mirza Teletovic, Brooklyn Nets
Team Overview: Bosnia has the distinction of being the worst former Yugoslav republic when it comes to basketball, but that doesn't mean anything in the broader context of Europe. By the continent's standards, they're a pretty decent team, hanging around the low teens in most Eurobasket tournaments. They have been a bit worse than usual recently though, missing the 2007 and 2009 Eurobasket while only placing 17th in the 2011 edition.
This year represents a new chance at glory though, and this should be Bosnia's best shot at success in quite some time. Mirza Teletovic, the lone NBA representative, functions as the main scorer with excellent long-range shooting ability. Two other youngsters, Nihad Djedovic and Elmedin Kikanovic, have improved since 2011's competition and will take on large role. Djedovic has excellent hands both offensively and defensively, and can score well close to the basket. Kikanovic is a good post scorer who loves to face up his defender. Lastly, it'd be hard to forget the American import, Zackary Wright. He might be a step down in size from Henry Domercant, their 2011 import, but Bosnia needs guard play above all else, and he's an excellent distributor.
Play Style: I'll preface this section by saying that I haven't seen this team play with Wright, who most likely altered their offense a bit. But from what I gathered from 2011 footage, Bosnia is a team that likes to let individual talent play out. They don't screen nearly as much as other teams do, and just kind of pass it around until they find a player who's defender is playing them loosely. Defensively, they like to play man-to-man and get in the other team's passing lanes.
Main Strength: Getting to the line. I know I already used this strength when describing Serbia, but this team gets to the line around 25 times a game on average. Basically, it's because they like to use isolation and post plays a lot, relying on their players to generate contact. This, combined with their surprisingly reliable offense combine to make a high-scoring team.
Main Weakness: Poor defense. Put simply, the team just isn't very good on an individual level. Most teams would get around this by pressuring or playing a zone, but Bosnia prefers to play traditional man-to-man while getting occasional steals from swiping the passing lanes. Basically, Bosnia wants to outscore their opponents, but they don't want to run and gun. It's a strategy that doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but it makes them good at beating sluggish teams with little ball movement (like Montenegro and Croatia) while losing dramatically to teams that do run and gun (like Latvia or Israel).
Final Verdict: I might be hating on their strategy a bit too much, but this team isn't going to go anywhere in this group unless they can bulk up in the post. Don't get me wrong, this is probably the best 6th place team you'll find in the Eurobasket. But they've just been put in the wrong group. Only a serious change of strategy would allow them to advance.
Who do you see winning Group B this year? Let us know in the comments!
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- Eurobasket 2013 Group D Preview
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