In case you missed it, Mexico won the Tournament of the Americas.
Yes, Mexico, which hadn’t qualified for a World
Championship Cup in 40 years. Gustavo Ayon of the Atlanta Hawks was the tournament MVP.
What does this have to do with Eurobasket ’13?
Only the fact that you never know what is going to happen in a FIBA tournament, as witnessed by what we are currently seeing in Slovenia.
Only 12 teams remain, and there are six spots up for grabs in next summer’s World Cup in Spain. The Spanish national team (unlike Team USA in the Tournament of the Americas) is competing, and if they grab one of the top six spots then the seventh-place team will qualify. But Spain is quite unpredictable, as evidenced by their 79-75 to Greece despite 20 points apiece from Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez.
We are at the midway point of the second stage, and here is a look at how some of the top teams are doing, who is making a name for himself, and some educated guesses as to which teams will make it through to the quarterfinals to compete for the gold medal.
For the latest updates, here is the link to the tournament home site.
Despite their stunning loss to Ukraine (coached by Mike Fratello) earlier today, Serbia has been one of the biggest surprises of the tournament so far, sitting atop Group E along with Lithuania despite playing without former Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic. Behind the rock solid inside play of Nenad Krstic (16.2 PPG, 67.6% 2PT), and the non-stop energy of Nemanja Bjelica (10.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG in 23.7 MPG) the Serbs managed to open with a big win against Lithuania, and took care of business against Bosnia, Latvia and Belgium.
A big reason for their surprise has been the steady play of Nemanja Nedovic, the draft pick of the Warriors who has grabbed reigns of the point guard position. He has shown that he was right to be a first-round pick, and he should be a staple of the Serbian program for many years to come. He still struggles shooting from outside, and while he may never become a pure shooter, it is important to remember that another elite European point guard who now plays for the Spurs couldn’t shoot to save his life at his age.
Tony Parker had no trouble leading his French team to the second stage out of the largely uncompetitive Group A. One of the few true European superstars, it really is special seeing how consistently effective Parker is in the pick and roll, and seeing him in this setting really makes you appreciate what a complete point guard he has become over the last decade.
France has been bolstered by the production of Alexis Ajinca, the former first rounder who flamed out of the NBA, mostly for being too skinny and raw. Ajinca has noticeably improved his hoops IQ, especially in the pick and roll, where he has been fantastic in this tournament.
Averaging a startling 7.2 rebounds in a mere 18.2 MPG, Ajinca is showing that as an energetic 7’1” big guy, he deserves another crack at the association.
If France is really going to be a contender to win the gold, they will need a little more production from Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw. Both players are playing solid, but for France to be able to come home on top, they will need Batum to take his game up to the next level, since he is one of the top overall talents playing in Slovenia.
Lithuania has long been one of my personal favorite national teams to watch, due to their amazing shooters and the brilliant play of former national team guard and Maccabi Tel-Aviv superstar Sarunas “Sharas” Jasikevicius. With Sharas sitting out this summer, it appears the identity of the Lithuanian team has changed, from more of a perimeter oriented team, to a burly team that attacks the paint.
Led by 6’4” point guard Matnas Kalnietis, averaging 12 points, 5.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds, the Lithuanians have gotten some big wins over Macedonia, Montenegro and France behind their incredible length and strength inside. Jonas Valanciunas has been rock solid in the middle, grabbing 6 boards and blocking 1.2 shots in a shade under 19 minutes a game. If Lithuania wants to make a run for a medal, they will need to give Rockets forward Donetas Montejunas more than a measly 9 minutes per game. I understand making it hard for young guys, but this kid has so much ability, and could be a real difference-maker if he is given the chance.
Ukraine stands as the favorite to pick up the last spot in the quarterfinals over Latvia and Belgium. Wish Pooh Jeter playing a very well rounded game in this campaign (11.3 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 66% 2PT, 44% 3PT), the Ukrainians should have enough punch to sneak their way in. Viacheslav Kravstov, while still raw offensively, has been a force in the paint, blocking 1.7 shots in only 17.5 minutes.
Ukraine or Latvia would come into the quarterfinals as the teams expected to finish 8th, as the team likely to be squeezed out of the World Cup. Finding a way to force their way into Spain next summer would be a huge accomplishment for either of these national teams.
The hot story now in Eurobasket is the amazing upset Greece managed to pull over Spain. Behind the fourth-quarter heroics of Europe’s best player, Vassillis Spanoulis, Greece managed to pull out the 79-75 win that kept their chances alive after their first round wins were all eliminated, leaving them in “pointless” going into the second stage.
Greece will need to beat either Slovenia or Croatia (maybe both) to get in to the quarterfinals, but they are as big a gold medal threat as anyone if they can pull it off. With a very balanced squad that plays a physical and aggressive brand of basketball, the country whose top teams won the last two Euroleague titles is very much a threat to take home the gold.
The Spanish team has been underwhelming a bit so far, losing to Slovenia and the aforementioned Greek squad. Missing Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro has certainly been noticeable, but the Spaniards put on a clinic of defensive fundamentals. If you want to show your squad how to play on the ball pressure, get yourself some film of how the Spanish guards defend.
While Spain hasn’t been up to par at this point, they will be a very tough out with Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez in tow. However, it should be noted that both Rudy and Marc are the type of players who either show up big time, or are a disappointment, in the most crucial games. Both players will need to be at their best for Spain to win the gold medal expected of them, even without their heavy hitters.
The hometown Slovenian squad has expectedly been given a major boost by the crowd, managing to not only beat the defending champion Spanish squad, but to overcome an Italian team that swept through the group stage. Goran Dragic has been one of the stars of the tournament, averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 assists. It must be a nice feeling for Dragic to get some quality wins after a miserable year in Phoenix, but you can really see how much he has stepped up his game since being given a much bigger opportunity these past couple of years.
The Italian squad has been playing fantastic basketball, despite missing both Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bargnani, going undefeated through the first stage before losing to Slovenia. While their NBA talents, Marco Bellinelli and Luigi Datome have been great so far, the real x-factor has come from a pair of young shooters, Alessandro Gentile (a 2014 draft prospect) and Pietro Aradori.
Gentile, a stretch 4 who is probably more of a prospect to play the 3 in the NBA, has been shooting a blistering 53.3% from 3-point range on his way to 15.3 points per game. Not too shabby for a 21-year-old at this stage. Aradori has been shooting a blistering 57.1% on 3s as he prepared to spread the floor in Cantu this year so my man Adrian Uter, who played for me with Rishon, will have all the room in the world to operate in the paint.
The Italians are a mortal lock to qualify for next summer’s World Cup, where they should be a big time force when their two main NBA stars return. However, if they want to take home some hardware now, naturalized point guard Travis Diener will need to step up. Expected to be a leader on this team, he has averaged a mere 3.8 points and 2.5 assists, and while the team has played well, he is capable of far better.
Croatia has been consistently good in this tournament, going 5-1, with their lone loss coming to Spain in the first game of the competition. Led behind the amazing scoring ability of Bojan Bogdanovic and his 16.7 PPG, and Ante Tomic’s always steady inside play (8.7 PPG, 7.8 RPG in 23 MPG), the Croatian squad has played good basketball this entire tournament.
Top prospect Dario Saric has been up and down, and with the 2014 draft set to be loaded, it appears he may have overplayed his hand withdrawing his name from the draft this year.
Unfortunately, since games against teams that advance count in the second stage, Croatia left behind 3 wins, and brought their loss to Spain with them to the second stage. Croatia will likely need to beat both Italy and Greece to advance to the next stage. That being said, the way they have played so far in the tournament, it would not be surprising to see them as a wild card team in the World Cup if they did not qualify, since they have proven they are an elite level team that is on the rise.
While Finland will most likely not make it to the quarterfinals, they have proven to be the most improved of all the national team squads.
Thought to be a one man show behind Petteri Kaponen, this group has been arguably the scrappiest and hardest playing team throughout this competition. What they lack in star power, they make up with their spirit and character, and these are traits that when they are instilled in a national team program, help bring progress to that nation’s basketball. After seeing this campaign, it will not be surprising to see the domestic league in Finland improve a great deal over the next few years.
AJ Mitnick is an American living in Israel and working for Maccabi Rishon Lezion of the Israeli Basketball Super League. A graduate of IDC Herzliya, Mitnick also blogs at mindlessdribble.net and is pursuing a pro basketball coaching license from the Wingate Institute in Israel. Follow him on Twitter.
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