By Yarone Arbel
Since joining the European basketball family in 1993, Slovenia have yet to miss a EuroBasket, an achievement of which few teams can boast.
However, despite possessing some of Europe’s top basketball talent, Slovenia have yet to make a real impact on the event and have never qualified for the quarter-final stages.
Against France on Sunday, Slovenia can add a new chapter to their basketball history and a win would be enough to secure a place in the top eight.
Nobody is under any illusions as to the game’s significance. "It's the most important game in Slovenian basketball history, because it can put us, for the first time in history in the top 8," said Ales Pipan after the win over Greece.
"I especially would like to thank our fans because they were with us for 40 minutes, and I expect them to be here in the game against France as well," added Pipan whose team has been given a boost by the presence of several thousand Slovenian fans in Belgrade.
|Boris Diaw has been France's top performer so far at EuroBasket|
Pipan chose to cancel the morning practice and give his player more time to rest after the big win over Greece on Saturday, 68-56, a performance that has people talking about Slovenia as legitimate gold medal contenders.
After two days Slovenia are the best defensive rebounding team at EuroBasket, averaging 30 rpg. Slovenia can rely on skilled big men Radoslav Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec, Bostjan Nachbar and Erazem Lorbek on the boards, but rebounding is a team concept for Slovenia, with guards Sani Becirovic, Jaka Lakovic and Marko Milic pulling down 9 rebounds each over the first 2 games.
France waited over 6 quarters before showing up to EuroBasket 2005, but what coach Claude Bergeaud saw in the last 2 quarters of his side’s 79-62 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina gives him cause for optimism.
Boris Diaw's performance showed why he's in the NBA. Diaw was everywhere on court and carried his team to their first EuroBasket2005 win .But he is fully aware that a loss to Slovenia could spell the end of France’s EuroBasket hopes.
" It looks like the third place in our group will have to play against Serbia and Montenegro in the next round, and it's not very good to play against them in a do-or-die game in their home country," he said.
France have two big concerns going into the Slovenia game. The first is the continued poor performance of Tony Parker and the second is the health of Mickael Pietrus
After two games Parker is still without a free throw (0/3) or three-pointer (0/5) to his name. He has scored a total of only 12 points at 6/17 from 2 point range and is averaging 3.5 turnovers.
Pietrus has been in better form and was a key component in France’s win over Bosnia-Herzegovina with 22 points and 7 rebounds. However, he has a knee injury, and although he says he wants to play, it is unclear if he will be able to manage significant minutes.
Without Parker in good shape it will be almost impossible for France to progress to the latter stages of the tournament, and coach Bergeaud doesn't want to heap more pressure onto his star guard: "I hope Tony will comeback especially in shooting. He didn't have a lot of practice during preparation, and so we must control his time of game. If he plays too much in one game, he won't be able to finish the competition," he said.
After two games France are the worst three-point shooting side in the competition at only 6/32 (18.8%). France are also last in free throw percentage with a poor 49%. What has kept France alive so far is the offensive boards, where they lead the competition with an impressive average of 15.5 per game.
Bearing in mind that Slovenia are the tournament’s top defensive rebounding team, the battle for control of the boards may well be the decisive factor in which side emerges with a win.