As just nine days remain until Eurobasket 2011 tips off in Lithuania, BallinEurope today takes a look back at the performances of the two dozen teams slated to compete in the big tournament and deploys some good old power rankings – and lotsa highlight clips from friendlies and tourneys played throughout The Continent.
Once again, a reminder to readers: These ratings are based only on how the teams are trending and are no indication of prognostication for Eurobasket. (The BallinEurope Fearless Predictions™ will be released soon enough…)
1. Spain – Yes, they lost to Lithuania in the grand opening of Kauno Arena, but BiE is sticking with Team Spain in the top spot. As defending Eurobasket champions, this team is chasing history and public perception has them on the rise, i.e. “El rival de España en el Eurobasket es España.” Plus, the side got back on track in tournament warmups, dispatching Slovenia on Sunday despite shooting 2-of-10 on threes and under 66% (21-of-32) from the free-throw line.
2. Greece – What controversy? Team Greece is up to their old tricks in European play – with or without Ioannis Bourousis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis – going 3-0 at the BEKO Supercup tournament over Turkey, Belgium and Germany; earning a like mark against Russia, Israel and Poland in the European Basketball Tour 2011 in Cyprus; and finishing 2-1 in the Trofeo Tassoni against Bosnia & Herzegovina, Italy and Poland. This is an interesting Greek team, with more of an emphasis on speed than in recent years, but they look just as good early on.
3. Russia – Timofey Mozgov may have washed out of New York last season, but he’s been right at home with Team Russia, going for 18- and 16-point performances to lead the way in a pair of August victories over Team Lithuania. And Andrei Kirilenko doesn’t appear to have missed a beat, either, as Russia’s enjoying a 4-0 run – though that includes two wins over Latvia – since losing to Greece on August 7, and they’re 6-1 for the month.
4. France – Since getting smoked by Spain on August 10, France is 6-0 after cruising through the London Invitational Tournament undefeated. Les Bleus’ impressive play was capped with a win over Serbia, as Tony Parker contributed a huge 24-point, six-rebound, three-assist performance. With Joakim Noah rounding into shape, this could be the best French team in six years.
5. Lithuania – Sure, the Eurobasket hosts are just 2-2 since playing Spain in Madrid on August 14, but if the debut game in Kauno is any indication, Lithuania is simply not to be trifled with in the tourney. Once again, Lithuania appears to be bringing a squad with insufficient height and few playmakers on paper, but this team is living proof of the old cliché’s veracity: “They don’t play the games on paper.”
While the star of this show is Jonas Valanciunas, it was nice to see a spreading the wealth to the likes of Mantas Kalnietis and Simas Jasaitis against the Spaniards as Lithuania continually demonstrated nifty passing to the tune of 20 assists; in the recent loss to Russia, Paulius Jankunas and Rimantas Kaukenas were top scorers. Beware this team’s depth – and if you’re a Lithuania fan, pray for the speedy return of Robertas Javtokas and Darius Songaila.
6. Croatia – With an impressive-enough second-place showing in the Adecco Ex-Yu Cup registered, BiE wondered if Team Croatia would be ready to play against more powerful teams after the team’s uneven, lackluster play in the first two games of the London Invitational Tournament. Problems were rife: Croatia shot a dismal 1-of-17 on threes versus France as they collapsed in the second half, while in their stunning 12-point loss to Australia going just 16-of-50 inside the arc and scoring 19 points in the first half. One has to be concerned … what’s that? They took the last three in London, including avenging the loss to Serbia in the Adecco? All right then.
7. Serbia – While Team Serbia looked impressive in the Adecco Cup, they’ve since reversed paths with Croatia, losing to France and Australia in London while requiring a fourth-quarter comeback to overcome Britain in the London Invitational Tournament. They’ll certainly come to play at Eurobasket but for now … ouch.
8. Germany – Dirk Nowitzki’s team performed well enough as they hosted the BEKO Supercup tournament, closing things out with a win over Turkey; German fans had to be particularly cheered by the play of Chris Kaman in the third-place game, as he led all scorers with 16. This chased the German win of the Spor Toto World Cup tournament, in which Deutschland held on to earn an impressive victory over Serbia.
9. Italy – So let’s see … Italia, with its collection of NBA players, Euroleaguers and the odd naturalized citizen or two, first loses to Bosnia & Herzegovina in the opener of the Trofeo Tassoni tournament in Rimini, squeaks past Poland in the second game, and then manhandles Greece for an impressive 82-73, tourney-winning victory. In other words, Team Italy is up to its old unpredictable tricks again.
10. Turkey – Ah, fickle Turkey. Entering the summer with more big men than an NFL team and a roster as good as anything they’ve put on the floor in a decade, Team Turkey was flat-out disappointing in the BEKO Supercup, losing to Serbia early and dropping the final game to Chris Kaman (!) and Germany. Enes Kanter has once again been as good as advertised in friendly matches, but ball movement has generally been slack in August matches.
11. Slovenia – Matjaz Smodis, still at the peak of his game, may not be enough for Team Slovenia to compete with the big boys … of course, BiE has underestimated them in the past. After leading his side to a third-place finish in the Adecco Cup tournament – though in the team’s best game, all they could do was keep things competitive with Croatia – Smodis wasn’t enough this weekend as the Slovenians could only hang with Team Spain through one quarter before too much of the Gasol Brothers rapidly put the game out of reach. Goran “The Dragon” Dragic still appears to be a bit sleepy as well; worse yet, Miha Zupan, squad member since 2006, has been declared out of the Eurobasket tournament.
12. Georgia – Georgia is looking tuned up after going 3-0 in the inaugural Eurojam basketball tournament, though can Israel, Netherlands and Villanova University really be considered a challenge?
13. Ukraine – Team Ukraine most recently bagged a nice 81-67 win against Germany to close out the Spor Toto World Cup tournament there, but a couple of caveats should be applied: Germany, not needing to win the game to take the round-robin competition, sat Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman for most of the 40 minutes; secondly, Ukraine still finished last on the table.
15. Portugal – Sure, beating up on Team Hungary in the Eurocup Qualifying Round is no big deal for either side, but surely the adrenaline is flowing in these countries. Finland gets the edge here, having topped Portugal in a squeaker in pool play, but the teams meet again on Wednesday.
16. Great Britain – BiE has always been a proponent of awarding Team Britain an automatic bid to the basketball tournament for the 2012 Olympic Games by dint of the country’s status as host. After the London Invitational, however, BiE’s of two minds about FIBA worries regarding the state of British Basketball. On the one hand, Britain played well enough in losses to Australia (if you don’t mind the defense giving up 95 points to a slower team) and Serbia (even outrebounding the Serbs 41-38), but these guys still kinda feel like also-rans.
While Team Britain cannot be blamed for the NBA/FIBA insurance snafu keeping Ben Gordon out of international play in 2011, one can’t help but guess that the challenge will be limited to winning a single game in Group A. Is this really an Olympic qualifier?
(P.S. You gotta love the way Joel Freeland’s been playing lately.)
17. Belgium – Bad news/good news about Belgium in the BEKO Supercup: The bad news is that the team went 0-3 in tourney against fellow Eurobasketeers Germany, Turkey and Greece; the good news is that every game was close, with Belgian losses of six, six and nine points. Yes, that *is* the good news.
18. Bulgaria – After going 1-2 and defeating only an “exhausted” Israel side in the European Basketball Tour, Bulgaria was spanked by Spain, 96-59, on August 16. They haven’t been heard from since…
19. Israel – How badly does Team Israel need Omri Casspi? Very. In defeating Poland (without Marcin Gortat and Maciej Lampe), this side “improved” to 2-5 in warmup games, an ominous sign for the underdog in Eurobasket’s “group of death.” Up next: red-hot Russia on Wednesday night.
20. Poland – As expected, playing without Marcin Gortat is painful for Team Poland, which went 1-2 in the Trofeo Tassoni, managing to beat only Bosnia & Herzegovina. Worse yet, they decisively dropped the opener of the Israel-based leg in the European Basketball Tour against the hosts on Sunday. And they get Russia on Tuesday night.
21. Bosnia & Herzegovina – They’re probably still buzzing in Bosnia about the national team’s win over Italy in the Trofeo Tassoni tournament last week; all the better to forget an ugly 87-68 loss to Poland the next day…
22. Montenegro – Nikola Pekovic and Omar Cook are helping Montenegro get some good results, including a 78-72 win over Team New Zealand in the Trofej Makedonija tourney on Sunday. However, this marks just the second win this summer for the side; the sole other victory came against FYR Macedonia in the Adecco Cup.
23. FYR Macedonia – Macedonia finally snapped out of its tailspin on Saturday by taking out Montenegro, 79-74, in the first game of the 2011 Trofej Makedonija tournament after a woeful 0-3 performance in the Adecco Cup. BiE, for one, is just happy to see Bo McCalebb back on the court for FYR Macedonia…
24. Latvia – Not ready for prime time? Team Latvia is 0-4 in August with losses to Lithuania, Russia twice and Slovenia. If only Andris Biedrins were here … well, they’d probably still be 0-4, but a more competitive 0-4.