by Dan Casey
|Mario Hezonja has been the dominant figure in Croatia's game throughout the tournament|
Saturday's first semi-final features a Clash of the Titans. Defending U16 champions Croatia take on the mighty Spanish basketball production line (live on FIBA Europe TV).
Croatian coach Ante Nazor described the match-up with Spain as "the final before the final" and it's hard to disagree as Croatia's unbeaten record takes on the 6-1 Spanish team.
The Spanish team gave up 70 points to the Czech Republic in their opening night loss, and 72 points to Serbia in a tight win. Otherwise, only one team has cracked 50 against the Spanish defense, which leads the competition in points allowed (54.0 points per game).
Croatia are likely to be a wilder beast to tame though - the Crotian offense is second in the compeition only to a Serbian offense whose average is boosted by two lop-sided games. Croatia were held to 69 points by Latvia and 68 points by France, but have scored 86 points or more in all their other games.
Croatia - Mario Hezonja - 19.3 points per game (3rd in the tournament overall), 8.4 rebounds per game (7th), 2.3 steals per game (5th), 88.2% free-throws (2nd). Hezonja also ranks highly in assists, though he will be disappointed with his high turnover numbers.
Spain - Ilimane Diop - 8.7 rebounds per game (6th), 3.1 blocks per game (1st). Diop is Spain's second-highest scorer with 9.4 points per game and, though some of his buckets have been thunderous dunks, the big man has also shown a nice touch around the rim.
Croatia - Marko Arapovic - the 2.06m center is a year younger than his team-mates, but his strong performances have shown that he belongs here. Averaging 8.3 points per game, Arapovic is just one of the weapons which coach Nazor will be able to call on to provide a crucial contribution.
Spain - Alberto Martin - a flashy point-guard with a love for no-look passes, Martin ranks 2nd in the tournament for assists and also for steals. But Turkey showed in the Quarter-Final that he can be pressured into giving up his dribble, and his average of 3.6 turnovers per game is too large.
Aside from one of the tournament's best offenses taking on the best defense, the battles on the boards could be a decisive factor. Both teams have rebounded the ball well in the championship, Croatia leading the rankings and Spain just behind in third place.
Croatian coach Ante Nazor: "I like their team. They have a lot of different styles, inside, outside, fast-break."
Spanish coach Diego Ocampo: "For us, the most important thing is to focus on how we play. It's not important who we play against - we must just play our game in the best way."