Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Best Games to Watch in EuroBasket Week 1

IT'S HERE! EUROBASKET 2011! Even though this will be the first time 24 teams participate (from the previous 16), the quality of the competition hasn't dropped off all that much. You will notice though how very talented groups A and B are.

Sticking to the days in order, here are the games to watch that will maximize your EuroBasket experience. Injuries and surprises are common in tourney, so I wouldn't mind looking like a complete fool by the end of this first group stage.

Day 1- Wednesday August 31st

Serbia-Italy (8:15 A.M. EST)

The competition as well as Group B starts out with a bang with two teams who have medal aspirations. Falling just shy of a medal last year, Serbia was runner-up in the previous EuroBasket to a far superior Spanish team. It was Serbia's best best showing in international play since winning gold at EuroBasket 2001 and the 2002 World Championships. They are led now by European Player of the Year Milos Teodosic. Now a 24-year-old, Milos is entering the prime of his career.

If Serbia has any hopes for a gold medal, it's going to be on Teodosic to maximize the usage of the formidable frontcourt of Milan Macvan and Nenad Krstic. This still a young roster overall, but now they have the experience of winning on their side. Now the question is, was 2009 an overachieving fluke?

Italy on the other hand hasn't been relevant in basketball since 2003. They completely missed out on EuroBasket 2009 and were atrocious in 2007. The 1999 cup holders look to ride their NBA 3-headed monster of Danilo Gallinari-Andrea Bargnani-Marco Belinelli. The problem with Italy though is that they always need at least two of those guys on the court at all times or their offense becomes stagnant. Italy is very inconsistent against all levels of talent, so this is a big test of a match that I'm not sure they'll be able to find themselves on top of come the final whistle.

Slovenia-Bulgaria (11 A.M. EST)

Don't worry, I'm not asking you to watch Bulgaria. They will have difficulties trying to win more than 1 game. It's all on Earl Rowland to be the driving force.

This is about Slovenia and how they should qualify with ease out of Group D. This is kind of a golden age in Slovenian basketball. They finished 4th in EuroBasket 2009, but they lost to Serbia in overtime of the semifinals and lost to Greece by 1 int he bronze medal match. Their roster is still stacked even with the loss of Boki Nachbar.

It's up to the Dragic brothers and Erazem Lorbek to lead their nation back into medal contention. They have a fairly easy path to do that as all that's left to do is attain the results. If they can wax Bulgaria, they're trek will have begun correctly.

Lithuania-Great Britain (2 P.M. EST)

The group of death isn't so deadly as Great Britain couldn't get insurance on Ben Gordon. So he's out. At least they have Luol Deng to make things interesting in Group A. Great Britain is hosting the Olympics next year so they're already automatically qualified. This tournament is to build up English support and get a feel for where they stand amongst the basketball powers.

Unfortunately for the Brits, they have to deal with the host nation and one of the tournament favorites in the first day of action. Expected to make a deep run like Turkey did in front of their fans for last year's World Championships, Lithuania is a nation of 3.2 million that all adore the sport. Sarunas Jasikevicius came out of retirement to participate in one last EuroBasket after helping his country to a bronze medal in Turkey last year (U.S. kept them out of the title game).

He gets to deal with a young stud in the making in Jonas Valanciunas. No Linas Kleiza hurts, which means guys like Darius Songaila must step up. A mix of young and old, the 2003 EuroBasket cup winners and 2007 bronze medalists are trying to regain their past dominance in the sport. So far in friendlies, it's been mixed results. But that home crowd is definitely an extra weapon no other country will have, and that alone can sometimes be enough to propel a team to victory.

Russia-Ukraine (2 P.M. EST)

Ukraine head coach Mike Fratello and assistant Brian Hill will have a very stressful time in trying to qualify out of Group D. Plenty of pressure will be on BurttKyrylo FesenkoPecherov, and Kravtsov to nab that 3rd and final spot in the group. When they can get out on fastbreaks and fight hard on the boards, Ukraine can compete with almost anyone. There are consistency and leadership issues however that will prove to bring nightmares to this still up and coming team.

Meanwhile Russia, the EuroBasket 2007 champions, are once again led by Andrei Kirilenko. No J.R. Holden is a massive blow to their medal chances. It's still a great team that very well should take the stop spot in Group D. Timofey MozgovKhryapa, and Monya will all have to step up if Russia is to overcome their weak guard play. It is a bonus when you have a great coach such as David Blatt on your bench. This matchup is as much about the coaches as it is the actual players. If Ukraine were to win, everyone's viewpoints on these squads will shift drastically.

If you had to pick one game, you definitely pick the host's match that showcases the energy of Lithuania's fans.

Day 2- Thursday September 1st

Bosnia & Herzigovina-Montenegro (8:30 A.M. EST)

Neither was around in the '09 competition, but both teams have potential to cause trouble, especially in a not so clear Group C. Montenegro just became a separate basketball entity in 2006. Most of their hopes lie on the shoulders of Nikola PekovicVucevic, and Omar Cook. They're in a dog fight for 3rd place.

Bosnia & Herzigovina kind of got the raw end of the Yugoslavia split. They are definitely a huge wild card in my eyes. They may be able to snag that final progression spot out of Group C or finish dead last. This game is definitely a measuring stick for both teams.

Israel-France (10:45 A.M. EST)

If Omri Casspi was healthy this might have been a competitive Group B matchup. Unfortunately, Lior Eliyahu can score 50 points and France may still win comfortably. PniniHalperin, and Burstein all need to up their games. Israel isn't a very good halfcourt team. So the more they can run, the better. If the Israelis were in Group C or D, they'd have a more than fair opportunity to reach the 2nd round group stage. Just unlucky.

France may not have the services of Mickael Pietrus and Ronny Turiaf, but they still have high expectations. France has been the perennial underachievers despite their highly recognizable roster. Tony Parker and Boris Diaw once again are representing the French. This time though, they can expect a lot of assistance from Nicolas Batum (who played well in '09), Joakim Noah, and Nando De Colo. If France don't finish atop of Group B, I doubt they'll be in contention for a medal. Parker was in beast mode during the friendlies, so maybe they'll finally get over the hump.

Italy-Germany (2 P.M. EST)

Dirk Nowitzki is riding the high of finally winning an NBA championship. So who knows how motivated he is to lift Germany back into the international spotlight. The EuroBasket 2005 runners-up haven't done much of late. But Dirk has some nice support this go around. Chris KamanRobin BenzingTibor PleissSchaffartzikHamann and others all will give Germany a fighting chance to get a top 3 position.

I see Serbia and France as the top 2 teams in the group. So Italy and Germany will be in a dog fight for that final progression spot in Group B. I think whichever guards show up will decide a game full of superb big men.

Day 3- Friday September 2nd

Spain-Great Britain (8:15 A.M. EST)

This match is about how serious Spain can be against weaker opponents. Great Britain doesn't stand a chance against a Spaniard squad that could win 65 games if they were to play an NBA season. We'll also see how much Luol Deng can really carry his mostly young and inexperienced teammates.

Latvia-Italy (10:45 A.M. EST)

This is a game that Italy should win. Emphasis on should. The Italians have a severe knack to show up against teams as good or better than them, but then drop games (or almost choke matches away) versus weaker opponents.

Even with Kaspars Kambala and Andris Biedrins, Latvia still wouldn't progress out of Group B. Neither is available for this tournament. Instead all they have are the Bertans brothers and a very unknown roster.

Turkey-Lithuania (2 P.M. EST)

This match will most likely determine who finishes 2nd and 3rd in Group A. Turkey made it to the championship game in front of their home fans in last year's World Championships, but they've been super sluggish throughout the friendlies. Turkey is also another underachiever in EuroBasket tourneys. They were silver medalists in 2001.

On paper, Turkey is slightly better. But that Lithuanian home court is the monkey wrench in an otherwise even matchup of great basketball talent. In my opinion, Turkey won't have the discipline or inspiration to hang with Lithuania for 40 minutes. The Turks play so much isolation that they fall into many slumps.

France-Germany (2 P.M. EST)

The NBA name power matchup made in heaven. In reality, this may be about which side wants to defend because there will be a lot of offensive weapons on the court for every minute of this game. I'd imagine France has enough defensive guys to help limit Dirk and company to prevail in this one.

Definitely a must watch. Plenty of Group B positioning at stake. If you can watch both 2 p.m. matches at the same time, do it.

Day 4- Saturday September 3rd

Ukraine-Bulgaria (8:30 A.M. EST)

I'll understand if you want to sleep through this one. No offence to Bulgaria, but let's just say Ukraine is screwed and should immediately fly home if they lose this one. Bulgaria may actually be favored in this, but unless Earl Rowland goes H.A.M., I don't see Bulgaria getting it done.

Greece-FYROM (11 A.M. EST)

This is where the political aspect comes into play. There is a deep hatred between the countries. It's all about a battle over Alexander The Great and a name. I won't go into the issue because I'm biased. Let's just say every time an announcer will be saying 'Macedonia', I'll be kicking a puppy.

Last EuroBasket, FYROM couldn't compete. I expect a similar result this time around as Greece will look to bully around their weaker opponent. The Greeks have lost a lot of big names and veterans though, more than any team in this tournament. Look for Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes to lead the youth movement with Antonis FotsisNikos Zisis, and Ioannis Bourousis as the veterans to keep the squad grounded. Could be potential for fan and/or player scuffles if we see a hostile environment. 

Croatia-Montenegro (2 P.M. EST)

Croatia might be the favorite to top Group C (though Greece is right there). However, I personally don't see anything too special with this Croatian squad. No Roko Ukic kind of validates my point. It's a very dull roster and I can't imagine enough people stepping up to take this roster far in the tourney. But it'll be enough to beat the likes of Montenegro. Could see an upset here if Croatia looks weak after their first few games.

Day 5- Sunday September 4th

Georgia-Ukraine (8:30 A.M. EST)

I'll be honest, this match will probably be a snoozefest. But seeing Zaza Pachulia take on Ukraine's big men very well could be an entertaining spectacle. Some actually have Georgia taking the 3rd position in Group D. I don't. Zaza gets into foul trouble way too easily. I think Ukraine will continue to improve throughout this first week, but that's why they play the game. Loser may have their tourney hopes dashed for good.

Italy-France (10:45 A.M. EST)

Another game headlined by familiar NBA names. This is also a battle of two underachieving basketball countries. Too bad Italy doesn't have much talent after their 3-headed monster. They'll need a few 30-point performances to stand a chance against a far superior French side. Stamina plays a big role at this point.

Lithuania-Spain (2 P.M. EST)

The two tournament favorites going at it. They've played a few friendlies against each other and each team has shown success and weakness. I don't have to say anything else. Must watch.

Germany-Serbia (2 P.M. EST)

This showdown will be overshadowed by Lithuania-Spain. Germany though will be looking to play the role of Group B spoiler. This could be a thriller of a match with so much on the line. Both have a vast amount of size and talent at all positions. Again, the difference here may be stamina.

Load up two windows on your laptop or computer and watch both of these 2 p.m. gems.  

Day 6- Monday September 5th

Israel-Italy (8:15 A.M. EST)

Both teams' fates may be determined at this point. If not, it'll mean Italy needs this game badly to nab the 3rd spot in Group B. I can see Israel pulling a shocker especially if they have something at stake as well (Which I just don't see considering the Israelis' lack of talent). Italy may have to get down and dirty and show some grit on defense.

Spain-Turkey (10:45 A.M. EST)

Both teams may have moved on at this point. Maybe one of them has to win to progress. Who knows. Either way, I don't expect either team to rest players. Too much pride and ego will prevent a letdown. Seeding is still important. Plus, Turkey has a lot to prove. A showcase of talent from a wide range of ages.

Greece-Croatia (11 A.M. EST)

Barring these squads seeing any more injuries, the winner of this final 1st round group stage match takes Group C. They are no doubt the top two teams in a weak group. My Greek boys will know at this point where they stand when it comes to their medal hopes. They've been extremely impressive in the friendlies and I know they can dispatch of Croatia. New coach Ilias Zouros has a superb system that focuses again on great defense and tremendous ball movement that won them EuroBasket 2005.

Serbia-France (2 P.M. EST)

An awesome contest to end the first week. Winner takes 1st place in Group B in my eyes. Both should already have qualified for the next group stage. Again, it's all about pride and seeding. Definitely a must watch. Plus, people really need to get more familiar with these two special squads. Both will be reaching the knockout stage.

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