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|Spain has the talent to repeat as champion, but it must get past a young Serbian squad first.|
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Twenty-four has become 12 and now, after the second-round cuts at the EuroBasket Championship, we're down to eight as the quarterfinals begin on Wednesday. For all the established barometers such as past pedigree, NBA talent, experience and level of play so far in Slovenia, picking a winner at this point is futile. No doubt, this is the most open championship in years.
Pre-tournament favorite Spain stumbled into the final eight and could still defend its title. But first, it will need to get past Serbia, which is no easy task.
France has gone either hot or ice cold, often within the same game, but it retains the faith that its NBA-infused lineup can turn it on when it matters most.
With no recent pedigree, Croatia comes in on a seven-game winning streak and a real determination to re-establish itself as a regional power. Lithuania senses the stars may be about to align for a first title in a decade.
Slovenia, sparked by the MVP-level play of Goran Dragic and its fanatical home support, believes it has an opportunity to make history.
Only Ukraine and Italy, both surprise arrivals at this stage, appear to be fringe contenders to end up with the trophy come Sunday night. But in a tournament of the unexpected, who really knows?
"When you arrive to the quarterfinals, all eight teams have a chance," Spain coach Juan Orenga said. "Because the eighth team has a very high level. It was the same in last two [EuroBasket tournaments]. You could play a very good game and move onto the semifinals, but it won't mean that the team you beat in the quarterfinals wasn't very good. It will be very tough for anyone."
|Marc Gasol and Spain limped into the quarters, but the defending champs are still a force to be reckoned with.|
Up by 15 points in the fourth quarter of its last group game against Italy, Spain seemed destined for the better side of the bracket. Instead, it fell asleep, lost in overtime and woke up to the reality that it will have to get past Serbia just to reach the final four.
It shouldn't have been so complex. The Spanish are conceding a tournament-low 61.3 points per game, holding opponents to 35.2 percent shooting. They're also scoring an average of 75.9 points per game, with their five victories coming by an average of 27.0 points. But in defeats to Slovenia, Greece and Italy, they've showed a lack of ruthlessness, loosening their grip when past teams would have taken a stranglehold.
Plus, Ricky Rubio is struggling. Talking to a number of NBA personnel, almost everyone has commented on how his shooting woes are a hindrance. The Minnesota Timberwolves guard has taken only seven 3-point attempts and played passive. He has been benched in favor of Sergio Rodriguez at key times.
Despite its recent shortcoming, Spain cannot be ruled out as a title contender. At the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland, Spain was minutes away from exiting in the first round but survived, and then flourished.
"Here we have the chance to play [Serbia] and win and be in the semifinals," Spanish guard Rudy Fernandez said. "For sure, we're not happy about this tournament because we don't play like Spain usually plays. But we have the opportunity to play a big game.
"We have a lot of experience in these games and we'll try to win and stay together. Because I think [as a team] when we play together, we're a unit and we have fun. And when we have fun, we enjoy the games and we win."
The Serbians were Spain's victims in the 2009 final. But while the defending champs still retain a large core of that roster, the Serbs -- who topped Group E in the second round -- have turned to a younger generation. Despite an average age of just more than 24 years old, Serbia has looked at home with the likes of Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nikola Kalinic leading the way.
One of its two true vets, center Nenad Krstic, is another MVP candidate, providing leadership on and off the floor.
"We have a good leader in Krstic and other players try to follow," Serbia's 19-year-old point guard, Vasilje Micic, said.
The other teams will watch this quarterfinal matchup very closely. If Spain advances, then every team down to seventh place will be guaranteed a place at next summer's FIBA World Cup. Should Serbia win, it might still just be the top six.
Key matchup: Marc Gasol (Spain) versus Nenad Krstic (Serbia): The two best bigs in this tournament will have a major influence on the outcome, although Spain's opponents seem to have realized that if they collapse in the paint, it can leave Gasol isolated. The NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year has suffered by having no real backup, whereas Serbia can spell Krstic with wily vet Rasko Katic, which could tip the balance toward the Serbs.
On passion and patriotic fervor alone, Slovenia would walk away with this title. On talent, it should still theoretically be France's to lose. But Les Bleus, the runners-up two years ago, have demonstrated an incredible capacity to self-destruct this summer, despite an offense which is racking up a tournament-high 79.0 points per game.
Their coach, Vincent Collet, was peppered with questions by his country's media but he had no absolute explanation for their struggles. Tony Parker has been, by his own high standards, inconsistent. And beyond the primary six players in the rotation, there has been only a token contribution.
To succeed, Parker will need some help.
"Nobody can win by himself," said Parker's San Antonio Spurs teammate Nando de Colo. "We must be together and if we want to do something good now, every player must be ready. If you play, one, five, 20, 40 minutes, you must think about the team. We know Tony is our first option in offense. But we must be there to help."
Defensively, especially in fourth quarters, France have had too many lapses. With a partisan, 10,000-strong crowd likely to provide a chorus of jeering every time they touch the ball, they must survive the lion's den. That requires an element of courage, Collet admits.
"You dream of winning," he said. "That is the first thing. You compete. We all want to go further in the competition. Before thinking of the danger, you think of the success. But as a coach, it's your job to make the players how to understand how to avoid the danger."
|France, which faces Slovenia on Wednesday, is coming off a 77-65 loss to Serbia.|
Slovenia knows it is a threat, with Goran Dragic displaying such personal intent and showing the kind of play that the Phoenix Suns would love to see mirrored in the NBA. Now, expectations here have been inflated, and it would dampen the national mood if Slovenia failed to reach the semifinals.
That internal pressure, Dragic said, can work both ways.
"Over the years, I've played a lot of minutes in the NBA when it came to backing up Steve Nash," he told ESPN.com. "When he went to L.A., they put a lot of pressure on me to replace him. I'm used to that. Sometimes you'll play good, sometimes bad. Here at home, when you have 10,000 fans supporting you, it can be great, but it can sometimes be risky. You can play badly because of that pressure on your shoulders. You just have to keep as loose as possible."
Key matchup: Goran Dragic (Slovenia) versus Tony Parker (France): Both critical for their respective teams, they will need to score, create and energize. On an off night, their side will likely sink. This showdown could be won or lost, however, on what their colleagues can bring.
Who could have imagined that when Croatia put up just 40 points in its opening-night loss to Spain, it would be entering the elimination round winner of seven straight?
It's been a remarkable rise and a great job by Croatia's coach, Jasmin Repesa. Croatia's run has been highlighted by FC Barcelona's Ante Tomic, who leads a group that's proven to have a steady hand with four of its victories coming by six points or fewer.
That was underlined in its double-overtime win over Greece on Monday, with Bojan Bogdanovic doing his best Robert Horry impression with one big shot after another. The Fenerbahce shooting guard leads his country with 17.5 points per game and his threat on the perimeter lends well to plenty of inside-out plays with Tomic.
They are also incessant defensively, something which their American-born guard Dontaye Draper says is part of their hallmark. "Heart. Energy. Intent. And Pride. That's the key for us," he said.
Yet if Croatia's achievement in coming first in Group F was unexpected, then Ukraine's accomplishment in getting into the last eight is a shock. Their offense is nothing outstanding -- neither is their defense -- but they are very efficient in getting the ball to the best players in any stretch of play.
"We don't have any stars here," said Ukraine coach Mike Fratello. The closest is shooter Sergii Gladyr, averaging a team-best 13.5 points, and new Phoenix Suns center Viacheslav Kravtsov, who has been a nice post presence.
Reaching the final four would an astonishing achievement for the 2015 EuroBasket hosts. But Croatia will tread carefully.
"[Ukraine is] here for a reason," Draper said. "They're not sneaking up on anybody. They're playing well."
Key matchup: Ante Tomic (Croatia) versus Viacheslav Kravtsov (Ukraine): Tomic, since he joined Barcelona last summer, has been a beast and the former second-round draft pick has the touch and skill to go along with his physicality. He's a key reason Croatia is the best rebounding team here and Kravtsov will need to make his own presence felt if Ukraine is to fight back.
Forza Italia! The Azzuri are the other unexpected guests at the final-eight party, coasting into the knockout stages courtesy of an unbeaten first round. That momentum stalled in not-surprising losses to Croatia and Slovenia, but some of the prior swagger was recaptured in Italy's comeback win over Spain.
New Spur Marco Belinelli has been a rock, new Piston Luigi Datome a spark plug, but it is 20-year-old forward Alessandro Gentile who has stood out. A number of NBA scouts here view him as a potential future first-round pick, which is no surprise when he has averaged a team-leading 14.6 points and displayed immense maturity in pressure situations.
Having fallen off the map over the past decade, it is important for Italy to create some foundations here. A spot at the World Cup would be a huge reward.
"It's really important," Belinelli said. "We won six games. We beat one of the best teams at this European championship with Spain. But at the same time, it's important for us to fly down and be ready to play against Lithuania. They are a great team and have experience."
Many here view Lithuania as the new favorite after it went through the second round unbeaten. No single contributor has stood out, but as a group, they have shown few weaknesses. The impact has been felt on defense, where Lithuania has conceded just 66.1 points per game.
"Every player on our team as a role," said center Jonas Valanciunas, who has been coming off the bench. "I have to give something to help push the team to victory. That's my role.
"We have a great opportunity to win the gold medal," Valanciunas said. "But it just matters if we can use that opportunity. We have to be ready and focused -- mentally and physically -- to take gold."
Key matchup: Andrea Cinciarini and Marco Belinelli (Italy) versus Mantas Kalnietis and Renaldas Seibutis (Lithuania): Kalnietis is just 5-for-27 from 3-point range and Seibutis is 4-for-13, but it's their defense which is the prime asset here. If they can silence the Italian duo, Lithuania will be in prime position.