EuroBasket 2013's near month-long stranglehold on the international basketball conversation is rapidly drawing to a close, with Monday's flurry of action finalizing the list of eight countries that are still vying for Slovenian glory.
Among those leftovers are squads that are both wholly unsurprising and somewhat shocking.
Spain—the prohibitive favorite in all international competitions where the United States is uninvited—should not come as a shock to anyone. Equipped with a roster full of NBA players, former NBA players and guys talented enough to be NBA players, the Spaniards are trying to become the first country since Yugoslavia to win three-straight EuroBasket titles.
But what about tournament darling Ukraine? The surprising bunch came into the event ranked in a tie for 50th in the FIBA world rankings. When you're behind such basketball powerhouses as Mali and Kazakhstan, it's safe to say that you're not exactly in the international basketball conversation. With a team-wide effort, though, Ukraine was able to skate by and advance with a fourth-place finish in Group E.
Spain and Ukraine will join a cast that includes Serbia, Slovenia, France, Croatia, Lithuania and Italy to round out the quarterfinalists.
At the very least, it's a reprieve for the basketball-starved. The NBA season is still more than a month from getting underway, leaving EuroBasket alone in the corner as the only form of relevant basketball currently happening.
With that in mind, let's check in on the action in Slovenia, breaking down the quarterfinal matchups and selecting which countries will advance.
Schedule of Play
*All television info is available for each country at EuroBasket 2013's official website. All stats are also provided by EuroBasket.
Serbia vs. Spain
If you hadn't ben paying attention to the action in Slovenia, this would seem like an obvious choice. Spain is the two-time defending EuroBasket champions and boasts a roster that includes Marc Gasol (the best center alive), Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon. The Serbs are No. 12 in the FIBA rankings after dropping four spots due to recent troubles.
So Spain moves on easily, right? Not so much.
Spain, while holding a plus-38 point differential in Group F, lost three of its five matchups. The prohibitive favorites were stunned by Greece and Italy in the second round, with the former overcoming a decade-and-a-half of struggles against Spain. That said, the loss to Italy may have been more shocking. Needing a win to secure advancement into the knockout stage, Spain wasted a 32-10 effort from Gasol and could not get a stop defensively as Italy pulled away late to win.
Meanwhile, the Serbs have surprised many despite boasting one of the youngest teams in the event. They won Group E to move on, getting a rejuvenated Nenad Krstic to lead the way. The former NBA first-round pick has been dominant on the inside, averaging 16.7 points per game while showing excellent touch around the basket. Nemanja Bjelica has also been fantastic, giving Serbia one of the best inside presences of this entire event.
All that being said, Gasol is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year stateside. He's an absolute genius at knowing where to be and directing traffic in the middle for his teammates. To see Spain struggle so mightily on the defensive side with him in the game and playing 30 minutes per night is a little jarring. There's enough talent on this roster for Spain to rampage through this event; the players simply haven't been committed enough to the task to get it done.
Winning three EuroBaskets in a row is a daunting task; that's why it hasn't been done in nearly four decades. But even with their struggles accounted for, I have a tough time thinking that Serbia will be the country to finish off the run
Score Prediction: Spain 80, Serbia 71
Slovenia vs. France
I'm not quite sure how prime-time television works in Slovenia—I've unfortunately never been—but Wednesday's matchup should overtake The Voice's season finale ratings over there, if I had to guess.
As a country that fully embraced the European basketball craze after declaring independence, it's nice to see Slovenia start seeing the fruits of its labor. The fans and organizers have done a sterling job hosting the event for the most part, and their team has been solid throughout the entire tournament, despite not having much NBA-level talent.
Goran Dragic, now fully ensconced as the best Slovenian basketball player in the world, has embraced his role as a team leader. The Phoenix Suns guard has kept propping up his team, despite drawing overwhelming attention from defenses. He is averaging 15.3 points and 4.4 assists per game—the latter being a better-than-you-realize number in European competition.
Goran's younger brother, Zoran, and former NBA flameout Bostjan Nachbar have rounded out Slovenia's other top performers. What's really been Slovenia's top performer, though, has been its crowd. Boisterous and proud, the Slovenians have come out in full force to support their team's effort.
The guys will need that support on Wednesday.
France essentially hit the copy-paste button on the San Antonio Spurs roster and brought Nicolas Batum on for giggles. Tony Parker, Nando de Colo and Boris Diaw have returned from their NBA Finals run this past season, and each have looked darn good. Parker is averaging 17.3 points per game and should be able to negate everything Goran Dragic does offensively—and then some.
Diaw and Batum are both very good defenders for the international setting—Batum is overrated in an NBA sense, but that's a whole other conversation—and should help lock down the perimeter. Outside shooting and the crowd could be issues for France, but they will not be enough to overcome the massive amount of talent on this roster.
It'll be close, but France advances.
Score Prediction: France 75, Slovenia 70
Croatia vs. Ukraine
You know how, sometimes, in international competition, a team would try less hard than normal to get a more favorable matchup in the knockout round?
Yeah, well Croatia's Group F championship performance was the polar opposite of that.
Needing a win to secure the top billing in the group and a matchup against upstart Ukraine, the Croatians went into two overtimes and engaged in a blood feud with Greece to get the job done. Bojan Bogdanovic scored eight critical points in the second overtime period, making up for a regulation that saw him turn in a complete disappearing act.
Expected to join the Brooklyn Nets for the 2013-14 season before buyout negotiations faltered, Bogdanovic has done an excellent job of showing fans in the borough what they'd be missing. The talented shooting guard can score in a ton of ways, using some nifty little dribble-drive moves and a solid stroke from distance to average 17.4 points per game thus far.
FC Barcelona center Ante Tomic has also continued his rise in Slovenia, giving the Croatians a consistent presence inside the paint. Tomic is a guy I really liked when watching Euroleague film this summer. He'll have a future as an NBA rotation player—likely never as a starter, though—if he ever decides to leave the Spanish giant.
As for Ukraine, the run, in all likelihood, stops here. Sergii Gladyr and Pooh Jeter (yes, that Pooh Jeter!) have lifted the Ukraine team with top-notch play at the two guard spots, but neither player is capable of taking over a game. They've both ridden massive hot streaks from beyond the three-point line to even come this far.
While the Croatian talent isn't overwhelming, Bogdanovic and Tomic should be enough to push the Croatians onward.
Score Prediction: Croatia 72, Ukraine 57
Lithuania vs. Italy
Before we even get started, let's get one thing out of the way: this is the best quarterfinals matchup by a country mile.
Lithuania and Italy are two very good basketball countries with rich histories, and their current rosters are comprised in such a way that we should see a nail-biter.
Italy's style of play has left folks downright giddy at times in Slovenia. The Italians, boasting a stable of perimeter players, are averaging nearly 78 points per game with a fast-paced, three-pointer happy style. They have four players currently averaging 13 or more points per game, including NBAers Marco Belinelli and Luigi Datome.
Not to be outdone, Lithuania isn't without perimeter talent. Linas Klieza has long been a better international player than he was in the NBA, and the Lithuanian depth has allowed the coaching staff to keep their players fresh.
One in particular could swing what should be a close game.
The Jonas Valanciunas summer tour de force has only continued at EuroBasket. An import last season by the Toronto Raptors, buzz around the league all summer has been that Valanciunas was on the precipice of a true breakout in 2013-14. He hasn't done anything to ruin that buzz thus far.
The 21-year-old seven-footer was named the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League after being borderline dominant on both ends of the floor, and he has been nearly as strong in limited minutes at EuroBasket. Despite playing just 17.4 minutes per game, Valanciunas is averaging 7.9 points and six rebounds per game while knocking down 69.7 percent of his shots.
Assuming his minutes increase in the knockout stage—because duh—Valanciunas should give Lithuania a major advantage. Both sides have solid, knockdown shooters, but only one of them has a center who a scout recently told me is a "guaranteed" All-Star this season or next.
Score Prediction: Lithuania 82, Italy 79
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