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.
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?
The defending champions are going for back-to-back-to-back European titles, something which would see them emulate the former Soviet Union (eight successive from 1957-71) and the old Yugoslavia (1973, 1975, 1977) and secure their place as a team for the ages. And they will commence as favorites, courtesy of an unbeaten record during a loaded preparatory schedule.
Marc Gasol has been, but needs to continue to be, spectacular. Spain's sole weakness is a lack of depth in the middle, but elsewhere, there is plenty of help in the wings from Real Madrid duo Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Llull, an emerging presence in Victor Claver of the Portland Trail Blazers and, above all, a wealth of riches in the backcourt, where Ricky Rubio has been installed as the starting point guard, Sergio Rodriguez is his backup and Jose Calderon, now of the Dallas Mavericks, asked to slide over to become a shooting guard to fill the gap left by the absent Juan Carlos Navarro.
The pressure, hence, is on Rubio to take over as the new leader of the pack. "Ricky's only 22 years old," Fernandez said. "He's young. But he is a veteran player. For sure there is an opportunity for him to do well at EuroBasket, to take more responsibility. We're lucky because we have three point guards who can play at a high level."
Their other tweak is on the coaching staff, where former assistant Juan Orenga has to match the success of his predecessor, Sergio Scariolo. "Maybe with Orenga, we're more of a running team," Fernandez said. "We've stayed aggressive defensively. But that's the only change."
Six months ago, this looked like France's tournament to lose. EuroBasket silver medalists in 2011, Les Bleus had made a promise to each other to return united in 2013 following their disappointing quarterfinal exit at last summer's Olympics. A golden generation, they hoped, might finally accrue the championship they deserved.
Joakim Noah's early withdrawal was a minor surprise, but few expected that coach Vincent Collet would lose three more of his NBA exports. And although they will again be among the prime contenders, their path will not be as simple as originally thought.
Tony Parker, as ever, will be their prime talisman and the figure around whom everything will revolve. We can expect to see an all-San Antonio backcourt getting extended minutes with Nando de Colo receiving an opportunity to show the Spurs that he deserves extra minutes this coming season. The frontcourt still has NBA talent in Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum, with the rugged veteran Florent Pietrus adding steel in the post. Those in Denver should keep a close watch on young center Joffrey Lauvergne, whose rights they acquired following the 2013 Draft, where he was picked in the second round. He's been impressive.
The French have gone 7-3 in the buildup. But questions linger over their mental toughness. Last week, they led Spain late on, only for turnovers to turn victory into defeat. Can this really be the time when the stars align in their favor?
Winners in 1987 and 2005, there is a feeling that this could be Greece's year. They've avoided (we think) their traditional internal strife, going 8-2 in exhibition play under first-time coach Andrea Trincheri despite the absence of new Memphis Grizzlies recruits Nick Calathes and Kosta Koufos.
What they do possess is a solid core from 2013 Euroleague champion Olympiacos, including the MVP Vassilis Spanoulis. The former Houston Rockets guard forms a very able backcourt beside Kostas Sloukas with plenty of weapons on the perimeter.
Young forward Kostas Papanikolaou, whose rights belong to Denver, has emerged as one of Europe's best young talents, and he complements the veteran inside pair of Antonis Fotsis and Ioannis Bourousis.
If there's one question, it's whether they can cope with tough physical foes. We might not truly discover the answer to that until EuroBasket reaches its latter stage.
Hosts two years ago, when they condemned an entire country to despair with a quarterfinal elimination, Lithuania has returned with a fresh feel for 2013, having seen a number of their veterans -- including the great Sarunas Jasikevicius -- walk into the sunset following one last run at the Olympics.
Jonas Kazlauskas, who led Greece to bronze in 2009, has been summoned back for a second stint as head coach and has been tasked with meshing a few remaining figures from the generation which won the title in 2003 with a new, exciting crop.
Former NBAer Linas Kleiza sits in both camps and has emerged as the leader and totem in their preparation phase when they went 11-1, losing only to Greece. With Houston's Donatas Motiejunas and Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas in alignment, their frontcourt is a prime asset. However, they will need the veteran backcourt of Martynas Pocius and Mantas Kalnietis to provide some offensive assistance.
Should that occur, and their elder statesmen stay injury-free, they'll be a contender once again.
Will the real Turkey stand up? Will it be the team with largely similar personnel that couldn't come higher than 11th in 2011? Or the one which was so enthralling, just 12 months earlier, when they were second only to Team USA at the FIBA World Championships in their own land?
We've seen a little of both headed into Slovenia with a 6-5 exhibition record, losing four straight at the outset before recovering towards the end. Yet there is no reason why the Turks can't contend. This will be Hedo Turkoglu's record-equaling eighth EuroBasket, coming days after making his 300th appearance for his national team. And although he appears expendable in Orlando, his influence is as great as ever.
However, at 34, he is a veteran among youth, and Turkey surely will not succeed unless he accepts a secondary role. Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks is now the fulcrum of this side, while one imagines Omer Asik will be driven by a personal desire to underline his own potency. And in Emir Preldzic, their shooting guard, they have a performer who relishes the big stages. What they lack, however, is an experienced playmaker to bind them together. One of their young point guards, most likely Ender Arslan, needs to step forward and have an impact.
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.