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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Let's get ready to rumble

By Mark Woods
Special to ESPN.com

Andrei Kirilenko
With Andrei Kirilenko leading the way, Russia has been unbeatable through its first eight games.

KAUNAS, Lithuania -- Eight countries have flown home from Vilnius. Eight have moved on, a 90-minute bus ride away, to the city of Kaunas, where the final stages of EuroBasket 2011 will unfold over the next five days.

The tournament has reached its business end with a knockout, one-and-done format from this point on, starting with the quarterfinals Wednesday and Thursday as the intensity builds toward Sunday's European Championship coronation.

There is also a parallel competition taking place: to earn tickets for the 2012 Olympic Games. Both finalists will receive an automatic berth in London, while the next four in the closing rankings get a second chance in next summer's qualification tournament. So for the losers in the quarters, there still will be one more game to play with a huge prize at stake.

Here's a look at the last eight matchups.

Wednesday, Sept. 14

  

Spain (7-1) vs. Slovenia (5-3)

How much stock can be placed on the way the defending champions mauled previously unbeaten France on Sunday is up for debate, given that Les Bleus were seemingly engaged in an act of self-sabotage. But talk to any rival coach here and it is Spain who is most feared among any of the teams left in the competition.

Offensively, it has been spectacular at times with the Gasol brothers and Juan Carlos Navarro punishing teams inside and out. There is a certain arrogance about their play, but also confidence earned over several years.

"We will play this our way," said Spain coach Sergio Scariolo. "We've developed our own style of offense and defense and we're trying to be faithful to this, while respecting our opponents. Slovenia has talent. They slow down the tempo which is a contrast to us because we like to keep up the tempo. It will be a tough game. But the semifinal is the goal."

Scariolo was perhaps being a little generous on the threat that will be posted. Slovenia, who will host EuroBasket 2013, is the weakest team left, losing three consecutive games before stumbling into the latter stages with an unconvincing win over surprising Finland. Now it will be challenged to the max.

"Spain's one of the favorites, they're a good team. We know them and they know us but we'll be playing under no pressure," said Houston Rockets guard Goran Dragic, whose shooting struggles have proved contagious among the Slovenes.

"Especially with Marc and Pau, they're really big under the basket. We have to fight them for rebounds and try and score some easy baskets in transition."

Prediction: Spain.


  

Lithuania (6-2) vs. Macedonia (6-2)
No one wanted to face the hosts in the quarterfinals in front of what will be a 15,500-capacity crowd at the newly opened Zalgiris Arena. By virtue of a last-second loss to Russia, the dubious honor goes to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which has lived up to pretournament claims of Euro insiders that it was the upcoming force in the Balkans.

Led by Louisiana-born point guard Bo McCalebb, averaging 20.6 points per night, the Macedonians could have traded places in the draw with Russia if not for a defensive breakdown in the closing seconds of their last game of the second round. But with powerful forward Pero Antic in terrific form, they won't lie down to Lithuania.

"We came here to play basketball and we won't just be sitting in the gym," said head coach Marin Dokuzovski. "We know that they're the host team, we know they're one of the favorites and we know who their players are. But we won't be giving up easily."

Prediction: Macedonia.


Thursday, Sept. 15

  

France (7-1) vs. Greece (6-2)
One joker after France's loss to Spain remarked that it was the biggest tank in Lithuania since the Soviets invaded. Opting to rest Tony Parker, and to give Joakim Noah's injury some space, cost Les Bleus their perfect record. The query is whether it will also wreck its momentum, always such a fragile creature in sports.

"That game counted for nothing. Forget about it," declared Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, whose mature play has been one of the biggest pluses for French coach Vincent Collet. "We're only focused on this game."

Greece has quietly impressed here, more than was expected in the absence of a handful of established names, using defense as its calling card. As a France team that will accept nothing less than to win its first European title, this is a major hazard in its way.

"They have some great players: some young guys and some older heads like Antonis Fotsis," Batum added. "It will be a really tough game for us. But we see this week as a great opportunity to do something for French basketball that nobody has done before. We have three games to win to accomplish it."

Prediction: France.


  

Russia (8-0) vs. Serbia (5-3)
The only remaining unbeaten side at EuroBasket, Russia proved it could win even when Andrei Kirilenko isn't on top of his game when it edged out Macedonia on Monday. If defense wins championships, then David Blatt's team -- giving up a tournament-low 63.6 points per tie -- can't be counted out of repeating its title of 2007. But a lack of an experienced point guard, and the stellar play of his opposing playmaker, is just one of the American-born coach's concerns.

"It's a tough matchup for us because of their size in the front line and because of the great play of Milos Teodosic," Blatt said. "We have a few days here to prepare. They've had one more day, which is an advantage. But we're 8-0. We couldn't be better up to this point."

The Serbians, silver medalists two years ago, have not looked as convincing this time around and have relied heavily on Nenad Krstic and Dusko Savanovic to carry the scoring load. But their young and vibrant squad is still capable of an upset. "They have great experience in these competitions and we'll see what we can do to continue our run," said Blatt.

Prediction: Russia

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.