Starting Five Have Croatia Dream Of Semis

31 July 2008
When observers began looking at the teams playing at the U18 European Championship Men and trying to pick possible favourites, the one team which really stuck out with an unbelievably talented starting line-up was Croatia.

Vladimir Vanjak probably has the highest-rated first five in Amaliada and Pyrgos. And they have played like it - with only a single loss against Russia so far in the tournament.

Croatia - who will move into the semi-finals with a win Thursday over France - are looking for their first U18 medal since claiming the title in 2002 with Roko-Leni Ukic doing it all.

Leading the way for this balanced Croatian team is Mario Delas. The 2.07m power forward/center from Split is the leading scorer at the tournament with 21.8 points while shooting 78 percent from inside the arc and averaging 10.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.8 steals through Croatia's first five games in Greece. But he knows that he is not alone.

"It is a great thing that we have a few great players. Every game somebody else has a great game. In this game (against Russia) I scored 20 points. The next game it will be somebody else. And that is our advantage over the other teams," said Delas.

Toni Prostran has chipped in 17.0 points and 4.6 assists from the point guard position. At the other low post spot, Tomislav Zubcic has collected 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds a contest, while shooting guard Ivan Batur is averaging 10 points per game. And Sven Smajlagic has hit for 8.8 points from the small forward spot, which he has shared with Josip Bilinovac.

Having those options makes it easier for Delas to avoid feeling much pressure during the game.

"It's easy for me. I know the others can score too. Everybody can hit the three-pointer. If I don't score somebody else will. No problem."

That starting five did plenty of scoring in their 91-81 victory over Turkey when they combined for 89 of the 91 points with reserve power forward Leon Radosevic making the only other basket of the game.

Radosevic could be starting on many of the other teams at this tournament but he is basically the first man off the bench to spell either Delas or Zubcic. And with that strong of a top five, there are not a lot of points for the reserves.

Including Radosevic, the rest of Vanjak's players have combined to score 15.8 points per game in Greece, with their most productive game coming against Latvia with 27 points thanks to 15 by Radosevic.

Delas, however, remains very confident in the players coming off the bench, adding: "I think our bench is good too. But they just have not had such a big opportunity to play."

The 18-year-old Delas, who is in the middle of a five-year contract with hometown club KK Split, likes his team's chances of beating France on Thursday and advance to Saturday's semi-finals.  

"We have a chance. We still have a game that we have to win and that's what we want. We have a good team this year. We're going to do what we can. We can't guarantee anything. But we will do our best. We first want to be in the semi-finals. And then it's just one game at a time after that."

One game at a time with probably the top starting line-up in the tournament.

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