Commentary

Russia, a mighty bear in hibernation

Originally Published: September 8, 2013
By Mark Woods | Special to ESPN.com

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- There was, unexpectedly, a little fight in the dog. In a summer wrecked by infighting, by politics and by an exodus of many of its key performers, there was a fear that just 12 months removed from claiming the bronze medal at the Olympic Games, Russia would come to EuroBasket in Slovenia and complete its act of self-combustion.

And so it has proved. Even though the Russians pushed Finland to double overtime Sunday, they succumbed 86-83. "We fought until the end, but it was not enough," admitted forward Anton Ponkrashov.

"It takes time to get into the new system. It is tough. But that's life."

With just one group game left against Turkey, one of basketball's superpowers will be leaving with embarrassment as their only souvenir. There is a very real possibility that the Russians will not accrue a single victory.

[+] EnlargeAleksey Shved
Andrej Isakovic/Getty ImagesThe talents of Timberwolves guard Aleksey Shved haven't been enough to lift Russia out of the EuroBasket depths.
Next summer, unless FIBA awards the team one of its wild cards, the Russians will not be going to the World Cup in Spain but instead have the indignity of taking part in a qualification series to get back into the next European Championships in 2015.

It has been a harsh first experience for new head coach Vasily Karasev, who has carved a growing reputation for his work with the Russian club Triumph Moscow over the past three years. He had to take over, two days before training camp opened, when Greek appointee Fotis Katsikaris quit after a falling out with the Federation's power brokers.

Yet even though Karasev has had to do without Andrei Kirilenko of the Brooklyn Nets, as well as Timofey Mozgov of the Denver Nuggets and the powerful CSKA Moscow center Sasha Kaun, he still has a roster that most opposing playcallers would envy. Minnesota Timberwolves guard Alexey Shved has averaged a team-high 18.5 points per game.

The veteran shooting guard Vitaliy Fridzon, perhaps their best player at the Olympics, has given plenty of support. But Karasev's son, Sergey, a first-round draftee of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been a marginal presence, like so many others. Critically, the Russians are giving up a tournament-high 80.8 points per game. After their loss to unheralded Sweden, Coach Karasev hinted at internal strife. "We didn't play as a team," he said. "We didn't really have a leader."

They can take their arguments home on Tuesday. How the mighty have fallen. And while the Russians head the All-Disappointment Team, there are two other contenders for greatest disappointment as the first round nears its end. Turkey did manage to earn its first win Sunday to avoid going 0-4, but it was already eliminated before its 87-74 victory over Sweden. It was perhaps no coincidence that Orlando Magic forward Hedo Turkoglu sat out, with sources in his native land suggesting he will sign with Euroleague club Fenerbahce once his NBA buyout is finalized. It saved some face.

"After the difficult situation we had, we were able to produce a good game. We resisted," Turkey's coach Bogdan Tanjevic said. "The guys played good and well organized, sharing the ball as the 22 assists demonstrate. There was an excellent collaboration among the players. They played with the heart, and I liked that."

There was little evidence of that from Poland, which fell to 0-4 in losing to Spain in what was less a contest and more a humiliation. The defending champions dished out an 89-53 beating, but it could have been worse after Spain led 24-5 after the opening quarter. Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat was held to just two points. The Spanish were as much as 48 ahead in the fourth quarter before switching off.

"We did not compete in the first half," admitted Poland coach Dirk Bauermann. "There is no excuse for that, and I apologize to the fans back in Poland. This is our fourth loss, and, again, we were not able to put together a solid 40 minutes of basketball." Or even five.

They can start packing their bags. But with one series of games left Monday in each of the four first-round groups, there are still plenty of unknowns. Spain, France and Lithuania, three of the quartet of pre-tournament favorites, are not absolutely guaranteed a berth in Round 2, although it seems unlikely any will miss the cut. While Israel, which beat Belgium 87-69 to record a first victory Sunday, still has a mathematical chance to advance.

At least they all have something to play for. For Russia, Turkey and Poland, there is nothing except the pain of remembering how good they once were and how bad they have become.

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