By David Hein
Russia cannot afford to slip in their 2005 EuroBasket opener against Ukraine on Friday in Vrsac if they want to capture a medal.
It's been eight years since Russia - who are teamed with Ukraine, Germany and Italy in Group A - made the podium - a third-place finish in 1997.
But this year's squad provides plenty of promise - above all led by Utah Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko. The versatile power forward is returning from a broken left wrist and represents the hopes of Russian basketball in Serbia & Montenegro
Kirilenko looks to be fit after scoring 27 points against Turkey in late August. And he's receiving a lot of help. American naturalized guard J.R. Holden has been excellent in taking over the playmaking duties, and Portland Trail Blazers youngsters Sergey Monya and Victor Khyrapa (who was born in Ukraine) make up a tremendously talented and young front court.
Coach Sergey Babov's team altogether is rather young - averaging 24.6 years with five players 23 or under.
"The youth of our team will be a strong plus for the national team of Russia," Babov said. "But these players have gathered for the first time together. It's difficult to count on mutual understanding of players in every situation at the moment."
Missing from Babov's team is 34-year-old guard Vasili Karasev - a member of Russia's 1998 World Championship silver medal-winning squad - who decided to retire from the national team.
Beating Ukraine in their first game could be crucial to Russia's confidence in the tournament.
Few meanwhile are expecting Ukraine to surprise anybody in their fourth EuroBasket tournament overall and third straight.
Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanislav Medvedenko will be called upon to lead Coach Gennadiy Zaschuk's team.
"This year Stanislav Medvedenko can become a real leader. I think his experience should help him to lead us at difficult moments," said Ukraine center Olexsiy Pecherov.
The 19-year-old Pecherov is actually one of the leading prospects coming into this tournament. And it's Pecherov and other youngsters who hold the future of Ukrainian basketball in their hands.
While Ukraine only have an outside chance of finishing among the top six and qualifying for the 2006 World Championships, Pecherov said the team is thinking about the future: "More important is to be able to qualify for the 2008 Olympics at EuroBasket 2007 by enhancing our teamwork."
The Russia-Ukraine game will follow the Germany-Italy opener in Group A.