|07 August 2012|
Croatia have some of the most highly rated 1994- and 1995-born players in Europe and could be the team to beat in Group D, but they won't necessarily have it all their own way against Poland, Slovenia and Russia.
|Croatia have a nuclear weapon in their hands in Dario Saric, one of the best 18-year-old players in the world, but he will have to lead the team without help from Mario Hezonja, who will not play at the Samsung U18 European Championship |
Croatia finished eighth in the 2011 edition of the U18 European Championship but brighter things could be on the horizon with a hugely exciting generation preparing to continue their medal run which has seen them scoop gold at the U16 European Championship last year and then bronze at the FIBA U17 World Championship earlier this summer.
Top of the list and a player who gives us all one of the biggest reasons to check out the action in Liepaja, where Group D games will take place, is the exciting talent of Dario Saric.
Saric, an all-round forward, is already considered the most gifted European player of his generation.
He was terrific last summer at the FIBA U19 World Championship and also tasted some brief court time in EuroLeague last season with KK Zagreb.
Croatia however will be without Mario Hezonja, the MVP of the U16 European Championship last year and a player on the All-Tournament Team at the U17 World Championship last month.
Slovenia enter their fourth successive year in Division A at the U18 European Championship having finished in twelfth position last summer.
That team is now entirely gone, so a new page will have to be turned although it won't just be the 1994 generation taking the reins. The 1995 generation is now causing excitement in the wake of their promotion to Division A last summer, picking up the gold medal at the U16 European Championship Division B.
Members of that gold-medal winning team were guards Aleksej Nikolic and Matic Rebec who are creating a real stir, with the latter crowned Division B MVP last year, averaging over 15 points per game, while point guard Nikolic was excellent at both ends of the floor with 4.6 assists and 2.6 steal per game and had made the All-Tournament Team during 2010.
Meanwhile center Tomaz Bolcina has found some court time in the Adriatic League with Helios Domzale and is capable of producing offensively and doing a good job on the glass.
|Results in warm-up games have not been very encouraging for Poland and it falls upon Mikolaj Witlinski to disperse doubts when it really matters, once the U18 European Championship tips off|
If preparation results are to be believed, Poland will not only struggle to match their impressive performance at last year's U18 European Championship, which saw them finish sixth for the second time in a row, but could even be engaged in a real battle just to preserve their Division A status.
Mateusz Ponitka and Grzegorz Grochowski were phenomenal in tandem last time but they aren't available and so it will be a new generation taking over, although a few players like center Kacper Borowski will return.
Of the generation stepping up, Mikolaj Witlinski looks set to be the player to watch. The forward had recorded a near tournament double-double at the U16 European Championship and is likely to be a real frontcourt threat.
Offensive firepower looks to be the biggest challenge for this Poland team and so they may have to telly on their defensive capabilities and keeping games ugly to pot a third consecutive top-six finish.
Two years ago in Kaunas, Russia made the Final at the U18 European Championship for the first time (since the days of the Soviet Union) and grabbed a silver thanks mainly to the irrepressible Vladislav Trushkin.
Tasked with ending what is something of a traditional success drought at this level is an entirely new team from the one in Wroclaw last year, which was made up entirely of 1993-born players who have moved on.
Headlining the new chapter is the 1994 generation with some interesting prospects and none more so than power forward Stanislav Ilnitskiy who not only offers some interesting options in the paint, but has also worked hard to try and develop his perimeter game too. He can put points on the board for Russia.
Igor Kanygin is a dynamic frontcourt player who should impress with his athleticism. The center isn't afraid to throw one down and his contribution will also be pivotal, as the focal point for most of what Russia does offensively.
However, perhaps it will be the form of 1.88m guard Mikhail Kulagin which will be the key. For if he can make some shots, which he has previously failed to do consistently, then Russia could be in business.