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The talk in the months leading up to the 2013 edition of EuroBasket has been more about those who are absent rather than those who will grace Slovenia with their presence over the next three weeks. Over 20 NBA players, all among their country's finest, have chosen to remain spectators. At least as many from among the Euroleague's elite have elected to follow suit.
No Pau Gasol for Spain. No Dirk Nowitzki for Germany. No Luol Deng for Great Britain. No Joakim Noah for France. And so on. The list of those missing in action is long and distinguished.
It is nothing new, of course. Only the Olympic Games can ever count on attracting a full complement of stars. As with the FIBA Americas Championships (which are already underway across the ocean), Europe's continental tournament will begin on Wednesday with some less familiar faces on view and some sub-strength teams whose hopes have already been decimated. For some, it has been a question of priorities, with their club career taking precedence. A few can at least cite injury as a legitimate excuse for staying away. It might yet lead to a rethink over where the continental championships fit into the schedule once the planned overhaul of the international calendar is implemented post-2016.
However, with the buildup now at its end, it is time to focus on those who will battle to lift the trophy, or chase the consolation prize of qualification for next summer's FIBA World Cup in Spain. The hosts have their place assured, but with an 8-0 record in exhibition play, the Spanish -- the Olympic silver medalists in 2012 -- are focused on becoming only the third nation ever to complete a three-peat of titles.
With five games in six days, their depth will be a huge asset. And talent in reserve is a common thread with all the potential contenders to end up in the final of the competition in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana on Sept. 22.
France, led by Tony Parker, has absorbed the losses of Noah, Ian Mahinmi, Kevin Seraphin and Ronny Turiaf but still retain an ultra-talented roster. Greece, spurred by reigning Euroleague MVP Vasilis Spanoulis, have coped without Kostas Koufos and Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Turkey and Lithuania's hopes for success have been boosted by the availability of their entire A-list.
We might see a surprise team, emulating Macedonia's run to the 2011 semifinals or Serbia's move on the blind side to the 2009 final. What we will definitely witness is a passionate set of home supporters in a country where basketball is of prime importance and where many of the games were sold out with hours of going on sale.
With four first-round groups dotted about this small Balkan nation, there will be intrigue from the very start. Group B has four components of the former Yugoslavia -- Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia -- with regional pride at stake. Spain's early meeting with Slovenia in Pool C promises to raise the roof. In Group D, there is no such thing as an ordinary encounter between Greece and Turkey.
Let the drama unfold. Who has a legitimate claim to be in the race for EuroBasket gold?
Even if a place on the podium proves impossible, there are World Cup spots available in Slovenia, as well as FIBA ranking points which might lead to a better draw in 2015, when Olympic qualification will be one of the prizes on offer.
However, Macedonia knows from two years ago that anything is possible. The unsung heroes of the previous EuroBasket, it will chase another top-three finish with American-born guard Bo McCalebb and Atlanta Hawks newcomer Pero Antic highlighting their challenge.
Their neighbor, Serbia, was a huge disappointment in 2009, and although CSKA Moscow and ex-NBA center Nenad Krstic remains, it was one of the youngest rosters here, helmed by one of the most experienced coaches in Dusan Ivkovic. However, the late loss of Milos Teodosic to injury is a huge blow.
Russia could either be the major shock or disaster. It is impossible to tell. The Russians replaced their coach at the start of training camp. Andrei Kirilenko had already opted out, and when Timofey Mozgov and Viktor Khryapa decided to extend their vacations, new coach Vasily Karasev was left with a mixed inheritance. His son Sergey, freshly drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, is still raw at this level, so much will rest on Timberwolves guard Alexey Shved and veteran center Sergey Monya to carry the load. Results, so far, suggest trouble ahead.
Nothing would enliven EuroBasket more than a deep run by the hosts. Slovenia's ambitions will weigh heavily on Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, given the self-imposed exile of Beno Udrih and the unfortunate injury-related exit of FC Barcelona's Erazem Lorbek, the preannounced face of the tournament on posters and billboards. A quarterfinal berth might be their limit. But it would be a huge tonic if they surpassed expectations.
There always has to be one underdog who has his day. Why not Finland to come out of left field? They were ninth last time, fueled by wily coaching by Henrik Dettman, the cunning playmaking of Petteri Koponen, and the obduracy of Hanno Mottola, who will turn 37 during these championships. Sasu Salin is ready to become a prime force in the Euroleague, and with some tenacious D, let them turn heads.
There are teams -- most with some NBA talent, some with proven names -- with evident flaws or a history of under-performance. Marcin Gortat can carry Poland into the second round but probably no further. Same with Omri Casspi for Israel or Viacheslav Kravtsov for Ukraine (again coached by Mike Fratello).
Sweden can count on two NBAers with Jonas Jerebko, now joined by Bobcats sophomore Jeffery Taylor, who scored 33 in his senior team debut last month. They could make some waves for the first time. Bosnia and Montenegro will likely fight each other to get out of the opening phase in Group B with Georgia and Croatia in a similar fight in Group C.
For the rest, there is a division between those wondering what might have been and those who expected little more than to come for the experience. Italy -- without Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari -- will need a mammoth contribution from new Spur Marco Belinelli in what is the toughest pool of them all. Great Britain, bereft of Deng, Joel Freeland and rebounding magnet Pops Mensah-Bonsu, has little in reserve. Same for the Germans, who are rebuilding for the future without Dirk Nowitzki.
As for Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia, EuroBasket 2013 will be an opportunity to relish the stage. They have little to lose, now that the time for talking is over and the action ready to begin.