|Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe. If you would like to contact Paul you can e-mail him here firstname.lastname@example.org.|
When Russia step onto the court in Poland next week as the reigning EuroBasket champions, they will do so without two of their inspirational leaders in Andrei Kirilenko and JR Holden.
While Holden has had his critics after some injury problems and inconsistent form, he is a trusted leader at this level and will be sorely missed - as will the NBA game of Kirilenko.
The gold medal success in Spain was the first for Russia in over two decades but they now look destined to have to wait until Lithuania 2011 to get near to the podium again.
Viktor Khryapa is having the responsibility placed on his shoulders as the new leader of the team. Unfortunately for Coach Blatt, it isn't the shoulders of Khryapa currently under strain but instead his knee which he recently injured during a preparation game.
The medical staff were confident Khryapa would be back in time to line up to lead the team but it looks like he could still miss out on the group stages - a potentially devastating blow for his country.
Russia will need to dig deep but at least they are in what looks to be one of the ‘kindest' and most open groups. They would have really fancied their chances against both Latvia and a ‘Nowtizki-less' Germany but the potential loss of Khryapa means they could now struggle.
To successfully evolve as a nation at this level, other members of the roster will need to raise their game, particularly the likes of Sergey Bykov, Sergey Monya, Vitaly Fridzon and Anton Ponkrashov.
Blatt has drafted in the experienced Kelly McCarty as his naturalised player and the 34 year old can make a potentially valuable contribution during this short-term role for his adopted country.
Russia are definitely being written off my most people and I have joined that list but those of you who have a good memory will recall Russia heading into Eurobasket 2007 and being overlooked.
To the surprise of everybody, they still achieved their dream but despite this warning from history, I don't think it takes a genius to work out that this time, it might be something closer to a nightmare.
Key Man: It was always going to be the hugely talented Khryapa after showing his full range of attributes and skills for CSKA last season as well as some leadership. Russia were hoping to rely on his skill set, athleticism and flexibility but now nobody truly knows if he will make it onto the floor in Poland. Khryapa has a more realistic chance of returning to action in the second round but by then, it could be too late. Their destiny could lie in his hands and whether he can patch himself up and get involved will determine whether they go home early or fight on. Otherwise Monya or McCarty will have to take over as the Russian kingpin.
Sleeper: Timofey Mozgov is hardly a sleeper in European basketball club circles but the 23 year old center is still very much one at National Team level. Something of a late bloomer, he could shine in the paint if given the opportunity off the bench.
X Factor: I can't help but think that the performance of guard Sergey Bykov will have a lot to do with how Russia progress in this competition. Without Holden, his role will be even more important. A ‘converted' two guard, I think that he has a lot to prove at this top level of competition. Monitoring his contribution and the effect on the teams success will be fascinating. If he plays well and delivers then Russia could be okay and squeeze through.
Weak Points: Offence and lack of available talent. It might sound a little crazy but even in 2007 when winning gold they were never a team that packed a knock-out offensive punch. To have their limited offensive power reduced by the loss of Holden, Kirilenko and now possibly Khryapa, means they are chronically short of big-time offensive players. This could be brutally exposed and they have looked out of synch and disjointed in the warm-up games.
Strong Points: Good coach and their defence. Coach Blatt knows his team have everything to lose if games are open and they get drawn into any kind of a shoot-out. They have the players to lock down the opposition and teams will find it difficult to score on them so they will play to their strengths and sneak games.
Wish You Were Here: Andrei Kirilenko, JR Holden, (maybe) Viktor Khryapa
What fans should pack in their suitcase: A DVD of EuroBasket 2007 to make themselves feel better when they meekly surrender their title to someone else
Movies and Movie Titles for Russia: ‘The Big Country' is a movie title that is certainly accurate for this nation or how about ‘Memento' - something that 2007 will always be. Meanwhile ‘The Departed' could definitely represent Holden and Kirilenko but I am going for ‘Exit Wounds' as the champs crash out in the second round.
Key To Success: Russia will be looking to control games and use their defence to strangle the life out of other teams. During that kind of choking contest, Russia will feel they can prevail. Don't expect too many classics and I suspect it won't be easy on the eye at times but if that is what it takes then they will do it.
Tournament Prediction: 9-12
In just five words: Offensive frailties will be exposed
The time has arrived for Latvia to stop celebrating merely qualifying for this tournament. When they take to the court in Poland, it will be their fifth successive Eurobasket and surely the days of being ‘tournament tourists' is now due to end.
Latvia need to believe they can push for the second round and arguably they will never have a better opportunity. They have a solid team and with some of their Group B rivals missing stellar names, the time is now for this nation.
In 2007 it looked as if they could realise their ambitions having disposed of Croatia in the first game but it proved to be a false dawn as they crashed out to leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
New Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura who took the reigns from Serbian Nenad Trajkovic can take some comfort from his team now having developed their playing style a little more.
They have went from being an up-tempo and often one-dimensional team into one that can now mix their pace and show variety in their style. Traditionally they have always eked out their moderate success from tireless work on defence, outside shooting and running the floor effectively.
Now they have a real interior threat built around the irrepressible Golden State Warriors star Andris Biedrins and well supported by the likes of veteran star Kaspars Kambala and Kaspars Berzins who has just moved to the ACB - the best league in Europe.
Berzins follows hot on the heels of backcourt duo Kristaps Valters and Janis Blums who have both just finished hugely impressive first seasons in Spain further highlighting the promise and level of these players right now.
Valters has established himself as a serviceable point guard in Spain, finally emerging from the shadow of his famous father. His all round game just got better and better at Fuenlabrada last year and he thrived on challenge of competing amidst the intensity and quality of the ACB. Likewise Janis Blums was influential in a good season for Bilbao both domestically and in EuroCup where he shone.
One EuroBasket head coach recently described Latvia as having assembled their best team for 20 years but opinions on their prospects seems to vary wildly. I think the ‘dark horse' tag is fair and they could get that second round place at the expense of Germany or Russia but can't see them making the final eight.
Key Man: Andris Biedrins is the heartbeat of this Latvia team and a double-double machine who is an absolute beast for his country. Gets better with every game and will provide a massive offensive threat. A monster on the glass, quick and rangy, he will take some stopping. Can dunk Latvia to at least one group win and will show what a star he is in Poland.
Sleeper: 22 year old Ernests Kalve is back after a serious knee injury that ruined his remarkable early career which once saw him play for Benetton Treviso in Euroleague as a teenager. Will come off the bench for Latvia and show his great athleticism hasn't been affected. Can step out and drain a three and is definitely one to watch.
X Factor: Kristaps Janicenoks is not a household name across Europe but his contributions to this team are incredibly important. When he makes a big contribution, Latvia normally prevail. When he has a quiet game, they struggle. He may play in the Italian second league but at this level he remains a prolific scorer. If he can come up with a typical 15 points per game and get his perimeter game flowing, then Latvia are in business. If he dries up they will be in big trouble.
Weak Points: Inconsistency, defence and a lack of quality and depth on the wings. You never quite know what you are going to get with Latvia and their defence looks very average. The loss of Sandis Valters is a big a blow as he is a good shooter and could have some vital offence in games to tip the scales in the favour of his team.
Strong Points: Team ethic, chemistry and their front-court. They are a well drilled team packed with players who play well together and their frontcourt power around Biedrins is (potentially) impressive.
Wish You Were Here: Sandis Valters
What fans should pack in their suitcase: An open return ticket and a few extra zlotys because this time Latvia could be extending their stay.
Movies and Movie Titles for Latvia: ‘Lethal Weapon' would certainly summarise the dominant Andris Biedrins and if he is on fire in Poland maybe ‘The Towering Inferno' would also suit.
Key To Success: The forwards have to justify their reputation by winning the battle of the boards while the guards need to find their range as they have misfired during preparations. The key will be the games against Russian and Germany as France could be too talented and nobody could realistically guard Parker.
Tournament Prediction: 9-12
In just five words: Could be a surprise package