Roster: Pero Antic (Olympiacos); Gjorgi Chekovski, Todor Gechevski (MZT Skopje); Vlado Ilievski (Lokomotiv Kuban); Aleksandar Kostoski (Kumanovo); Bo McCalebb (Montepaschi Siena); Kiril Nikolovski, Marko Simonovski, Darko Sokolov (Feni Indistrija); Vojdan Pavlov (?); Predrag Samardziski (Lietuvos Rytas); Damjan Stojanovski (Lukoil Akademik); coach Marjan Lazovski (Torus Skopje)
Notable no shows: Though the name players from the Macedonian Miracle at Eurobasket 2011 – Pero Antic, Vlado Ilievski and of course Bo McCalebb – have not yet played with the team in friendlies, they will apparently be competing in the qualifying tournament.
How they got here: By way of the Macedonian Miracle, of course! *The* dark horse, the surprise, the transcendence of fundamental European-style ‘ball, the whatever-adjective-you-wish-to-apply of Eurobasket 2011, Team FYR Macedonia stunned viewers with their fourth-place finish (and two near-wins against ultimate third-placers Russia). Not even BiE (ahem), whose Fearless Prediction™ had them advancing out of Group C, reckoned the Lions would romp so far into the tournament.
Specifically, FYR Macedonia got to the Olympic qualifiers by executing two fundamentals over a stretch of 11 games better than the field: Managing turnovers and solid half-court defense.
In terms of TOs, the Lions gave up the ball just 9.9 times per game through Eurobasket 2011, best among the final 12 teams. The side’s 68.3 ppg allowed was good for fourth-best overall in the statistic; the number becomes even more impressive if one discounts the 92 points allowed to the Spanish machine – tournament leaders in scoring – in the semifinals, thereby dropping the figure to 65.9 ppg.
Tying it all together was a remarkable ability to shift gears from halfcourt to transition. While average in actual fast-break points, no team did the 0-to-60 thing to trigger runs better than FYR Macedonia in ’11 – ask the Lithuanians.
How much of this will be relevant in ’12? Tough to say thus far; Team FYR Macedonia has brought in a new coach as Marjan Lazovski replaces Marin Dokuzovski, who at least provided Damjan Stojanovski from his current club Lukoil Akademik, and the switch has gone smoothly thus far. Ten players are returning from the ‘Miracle, but the Bo/Pero/Vlado triumvirate represented 61.3% of the team’s Eurobasket points, a whopping 77.1% of its assists and exactly one dagger to Lithuania (no, really: *to* Lithuania; see video below) – and they haven’t suited up for the national team in friendlies.
What they’ve done recently: Without their big three, the Lions pulled off an admirable 78-74 win over a “struggling” Lithuania side back on June 16. After that one, Lazovski stated that “We came to show once again that we can play well basketball and that last year’s success was not accidental. We played with young team, without four starters [Todor Gechevski didn’t play either], but nevertheless we have shown that we can play great together.”
Oh no? Just a couple of days earlier, FYR Macedonia couldn’t keep things close as they had during the tournament against Team Russia, falling 81-60 in a bit of a laugher for the opposition; the Lions fell apart to lose the second half of that one by a 55-31 margin.
Since then, well, the team has arrived in the Americas…
Player to watch: McCalebb, of course. Bo knows the emphasis on point-guard play in international tournaments, displaying some amazing leadership and playmaking with this bunch at Eurobasket. Whether or not he has immediate NBA aspirations, McCalebb is nevertheless a free agent at present and the qualifying tournament will be a dandy place for Bo to show off the arsenal of skills.
Weaknesses: Come on! FYR Macedonia is outsized, out-gunned and generally out-rostered by every European (and even South American) team in the Olympic tournament and qualifiers, right? Clearly these guys aren’t to be taken seriously, right? Of course, that’s just want they want you to think … truth is the only formula for beating FYR Macedonia in the Eurobasket tournament was to throw three skilled big men at ‘em at the same time. See: Spain, Russia.
Outlook: Is Macedonian Miracle II possible? Group D is arguably the toughest of the lot at the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, with Angola and New Zealand competing with the Lions to advance. New Zealand matches up well enough with FYR Macedonia – the Kiwis have decent height and scoring machine Kirk Penney – to make a game of things on July 3.
More intriguing is the possibility that FYR Macedonia will once again meet Russia in the tournament round with a second-place finish, safely assuming the Russians roll through their matches against South Korea and Dominican Republic. If not, the Macedonians wouldn’t get another shot at their new rivals until the tourney’s final day.
In the short term, BiE believes there’s enough Miracle (and weaker competition) left to get FYR Macedonia into the final four in the qualifying tourney. Should the team emerge as Group D top dog, a first-round win against South Korea or Dominican Republic would set up a date with Lithuania (as tops in Group B) or Puerto Rico (as A runners-up) – possibly even Nigeria or Greece with some prior weirdness. The most dangerous matchup at this level is clearly Team Lithuania, improved since Eurobasket and seeking revenge for the anguishing defeat handed to them by the Macedonian dark horses last September.
Just imagine a 4-0 FYR Macedonia meeting Russia for a 2012 Olympic bid…