by Dan Casey
|Will Domagoj Bosnjak and Croatia keep on dominating the competition or do the hosts have a say in this as well?|
In the red corner, defending champions Croatia. In the blue corner, hometown heroes Czech Republic. Who will triumph in the U16 European Championship Men Final (live on FIBA Europe TV)?
Both teams are entering their second final in history. Croatia won gold last year in Bar, Montenegro.
The Czech Republic will be hoping to improve on their last appearance in the U16 European Championship Men final, when Lithuania dominated in Pescara, Italy in 2008.
The local fans should ensure that a repeat performance of that day is unlikely. 2,200 fans came to the Quarter-Final win over Latvia, and 2,700 spectators were in attendance at the CEZ Arena in Pardubice yesterday to see the Czech Republic's thrilling Semi-Final victory over France.
The Czech team have shown great heart and character so far in the tournament. They trailed for almost the entire game against Latvia but came back to win. The much-fancied French team started the Semi-Final well, but the Czech team came back and blitzed their opponents in a stunning 20-0 run in the third and fourth periods. Ever since the opening day win against a strong Spanish team, the Czech Republic have appeared empowered by the crowd, rarely showing the nerves you might expect from young players.
But back-up point guard David Zumer and energiser Jiri Soula were hurt during the Semi-Final and losing either player to injury would hurt the Czech team's chances. And they face a Croatia side who have romped through the tournament, winning all 8 games with an average margin of victory of 9.0 points per game.
Only Ivan Jukic returns from the team which claimed gold last year, but Croatian basketball has a new star in Mario Hezonja. Listed as a small-forward, Hezonja has spent most of the tournament running the Croatian offense. He averages 3.0 assists per game and 2.1 steals per game, but his ability to take over a game when his team needs him has been the most important part of his performances here. He hit timely three-pointers throughout the Semi-Final against Spain, though he will need to work on shot selection as 8.0 attempts per game is too many (he has made 16-64 for the tournament).
Hezonja is 4th in scoring for the tournament with 19.9 points per game, and 2nd in free-throw percentage with 86.1% (31-36). He is also a big factor on the boards with 8.0 rebounds per game. Back-court mate Paolo Marinelli has chipped in regularly with 12.5 points per game, and leads the tournament in three-point shooting percentage with 48.1% (13-27). Domagoj Bosnjak, Jukic and Tomislav Gabric have all regularly provided energy to the team and helped to contribute to the team's defense.
Czech captain Radovan Kouril has run his team fantastically well during the tournament, leading the competition with 6.4 assists per game while throwing in 16.1 points per game (ranked 7th in the tournament overall). But the Czech team will be hoping that Soula and Zumer can bounce back from the injuries sustained in the Semi-Final as both have provided crucial energy for the team. David Subert showed in the Semi-Final that he can make big plays if required.
Martin Peterka has had an outstanding tournament for the Czech team, leading the competition in rebounding (12.4 rebounds per game). He ranks 6th overall in points scored with 17.1 points per game, and his accuracy inside and outside has been deadly. Peterka led the charge against the French team in the Semi-Final yesterday, and ranks 3rd in three-point shooting percentage with 42.4% (14-33).
Center Prokop Slanina has helped hugely with 11.5 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game and 1.0 blocks per game. He ranks 3rd in the tournament for free-throw shooting with 85.7% (30-35) and has made a number of crucial plays throughout the tournament. The Czech team has also received great contributions from Jiri Dedek, Matej Rubes, Matej Svoboda and Tomas Soukal.
Croatian big man Karlo Zganec leads the team in assists and has made a number of contributions to the team during the tournament. With Hezonja, he has helped Croatia to control the boards with 8.3 rebounds per game (8th in the tournament). Dorian Jelenek and 15-year-old Marko Arapovic have often provided sparks from the bench, hitting crucial shots whenever the Croatian offense has slowed down.
Behind Karlo Zganec and Hezonja, Croatia lead the tournament in rebounding, but will be wary of Peterka and Slanina's ability to grab crucial offensive rebounds.
The Czech Republic may be able to put pressure on the Croatian ball-handlers, as Croatia have turned the ball over often during the tournament (21.3 per game, rank 3rd). On the other hand Kouril has shown great composure and the Czech team have taken good care of their ball, 14.9 turnovers per game ranking them 15th of the 16 teams.
While both teams have shown the ability to get defensive stops when required, they are both among the highest-scoring teams in the competition. Czech Republic rank 5th with 75.9 points per game and Croatia rank 2nd with 81.3 points per game. The ability to hit crucial shots has helped both teams, with Croatia easily the best team in the tournament in free-throws made and free-throw percentage with 77% (157-204). The Czech Republic, behind hot-shooting from Peterka, Kouril and Subert, lead the tournament in three-point shooting percentage at 33.6% (46-137). In front of a vocal home crowd, the cheers greeting a crucial three-pointer may be enough to swing any momentum towards the Czech team.
It's impossible to write the Czech Republic off - the team has shown incredible resilience throughout the tournament and the home crowd has passionately supported the players' hard work. Croatia have been unstoppable all tournament. The fans in Pardubice and on FIBA Europe TV can certainly expect a classic final.