Spain, France lead final Euro dozen

If coach Vincent Collet and Tony Parker keep France on track, Les Blues could challenge Spain's reign. Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- For the presumed elite, getting through the first round of EuroBasket is rather like the first few miles of a marathon. You jog along for a while, settle into a rhythm, prepare yourself mentally for the long haul. And then pray that, at some point down the road, you don't run right into the wall.

The second phase starts on Wednesday in the Slovene capital. With 24 teams reduced to 12, and with three crossover games to come before we hit the elimination rounds, the time for experimentation is at an end. It is the moment to bring the very best.

However, with points accrued against other surviving teams carried forward, not everyone is starting over equal. Italy, the only unbeaten squad here, begins with a 2-0 record in Group F.

France and Serbia, by virtue of having lost only to rivals who have since departed, also have a 2-0 mark in Group E. One more victory quite probably will suffice to reach the quarterfinals.

But for Latvia, Belgium and, most unexpectedly, Greece, their 0-2 standing leaves them with a tough road ahead over the next six days.

Thoughts, however, are slowly turning to title runs for the pre-tournament favorites. With Lithuania inconsistent, and the Greeks neutered by an ankle injury to Vassilis Spanoulis, all eyes are on Spain and France to convert the greatest depth of talent here into a march to the final. Yet, neither has truly hit its stride.

Defensively, the French have lacked energy at times, while relying on former Raptors and Mavericks center Alexis Ajinca for the tough physical presence they need to protect Tony Parker and Nando de Colo. Johan Petro, currently a free agent, has been anonymous. Ronny Turiaf and Joakim Noah have been badly missed.

Of greatest concern, there have been times when it looks like Les Bleus believe they can turn it on whenever it is required. At some point, admitted head coach Vincent Collet, that might leave them exposed, a trait which might see him shuffle his rotations with extra exposure for promising guard Antoine Diot.

Regardless, their A-game, Collet declared, must come now, starting in their Group E opener with Lithuania, when he hopes to have Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum return from injury.

"A new competition starts on Wednesday," he stated. "We will [play] differently. The way we start the game will change. Because [you] have no doubt about your goals. I know my players. I know how much they want to succeed. So now, the danger will be very close. I think we need this danger to play at our level. I hope so. I have no choice, I have to hope."

That sense of complacency, admitted Boris Diaw, was evident in their first-half humiliation by unheralded Belgium Tuesday, when France came out expecting to coast and instead was threatened with an upset.

It was a lesson learned, the Spurs forward said. "It's a little bit like a kid. You see a pit bull and you're scared. They are people like Spain, Greece and teams like that. Then you see a Labrador and they're not scary. But he can bite you too. In our subconscious, we are not afraid of them ... Sometimes you don't realize."

Spain has been more convincing, losing once to host Slovenia, but winning its other four games by an average of 39.2 points. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez have stepped up to take some of the load off Marc Gasol, and the reigning champions are allowing just 53.8 PPG, almost 14 fewer than anyone else.

"Now we're in the second phase, where we wanted to be," said Spanish forward Fernando San Emeterio, speaking ahead of Thursday's Group F opener with Greece.

"And apart from the diversion of Slovenia, which I believe just made us better, I think we've [played] tough games. Perhaps, we've not been too fluid enough in attack but that was in the first phase when it's difficult. But now, little by little, we're finding a good momentum."

Spare a thought for Finland and veteran center Hanno Mottola, after it was confirmed he sustained an ACL tear during his team's win over Greece. The one-time Atlanta Hawk, now aged 37, might have played his last international game. For the impressive Finns, the end of his EuroBasket is a blow they could badly have done without.