By Chris Sheridan
VILNIUS, Lithuania — Spain learned Monday who its opponent will be in the second round of Eurobasket, and it is a team that will try to dictate the pace of the game and keep it slow.
That opponent is Slovenia, which advanced to the quarterfinals by defeating Finland 67-60 to claim fourth place in Group F.
“We know them, we respect them, we know they are full of excellent talented players and experienced players, and we would be stupid if we were not prepared for a really, really tough quarterfinal,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo told SheridanHoops.com. “They handle tempo. It’s tough to run against them.
“They know when to run, they know when to slow down. It’ll be tough from this point. We have to impose our tempo, try to go uptempo, but they will slow us down and there will be a lot of possessions that are five-on five sets.”
Of the 24 teams that in EuroBasket, Slovenia ranks 22nd in points per game with 67.8 — ahead of only Belgium and Ukraine, both of which were eliminated in the first round.
Spain ranks second in points with 82.6 (Lithuania is leading the tournament with 85.0 points per game).
Slovenia ranks second in fewest points allowed, 65.1, and had held its opponents to 43 percent shooting, but they have been the worst 3-point shooting team in the tournament at 25.8 percent. Their greatest statistical accomplishment has been their offensive rebounding, as they lead all teams with 14.0 per game.
Spain has three players averaging double figures in scoring: Pau Gasol (20.4), Juan Carlos Navarro (14.8) and Marc Gasol (14.6). Slovenia’s leading scorer has been Erazem Lorbek with an average of just 11.4 points. With Beno Udrih, Bostjan Nochbar, Sani Becirovic, Sasha Vujacic and Primoz Brezec not playing for the national team this summer, opponents have keyed on stopping shooting guard Jaka Lakovic, who has missed 41 of his 62 shots.
So while it looks to be a bit of a mismatch, Scariolo is not taking Slovenia lightly.
“They are very competitive and very well coached. They have so many players that can score 20 points in a game.”
Scariolo has been pleased with all aspects of his team’s performance except the 3-point shooting, which finally improved in Sunday’s 96-69 victory over France as Navarro shot 4-for-4, Fernandez was 3-for-4 and Victor Claver was 2-for-2 as Spain made 10 of 19 attempts from behind the arc (albeit against a France team that was giving minimal defensive effort).
Ricky Rubio, however, has struggled with his shot throughout the tournament, missing all 11 of his 3-point attempts and shooting just 21 percent. He also has just 15 assists in eight games, with four of his teammates having higher totals: Fernandez with 28, Navarro with 27, Jose Calderon with 21 and Sergio Llull with 17.
In eight games, Rubio has a total of only 11 points.
Spain is the heavy favorite to win this tournament, but that also was the case in 2007 when EuroBasket was held in Madrid and Russia won the gold medal game as the Spaniards, especially Pau Gasol, succumbed to the pressure of meeting the expectations of their home fans.
Since then, the team personnel has remained fairly constant, and the players have matured mentally.
“One of the nice things about this team is they don’t care what people say about the team or write about the team. They stay focused inside, not on the outside,” said Scariolo, who was criticized in Spain last summer when his team lost 92-89 to Serbia in the quarterfinals of the World Championship and finished sixth after losing 86-81 to Argentina in their final game.
The Spaniards were world champions in 2006, but silver medalists at EuroBasket in 2007 and the 2008 Beijing Olympics before winning EuroBasket in Poland in 2009.
Given the talent and experience on his roster, Scariolo is expected to send his team back to Espana as champions.
If he is feeling pressure, he is not letting it show.
“When I started coaching I was 28, turned 29 during the season and won the championship (with Scavolini Percaro of the Italian League). Everybody was expecting a top level performance from that team, and from that day on I learned that the only expectation to consider is your own expectations, not those around you,” Scariolo said.