By Kevin Anselmo
Bulgaria and Croatia, two teams with rich basketball histories, match-up against each other in the first game of Group B in Podgorica both seeking a positive start and a return to the top following long absences.
Croatia, Olympic Silver medallists back in 1992, have not climbed onto the EuroBasket podium in 10 years. Following a bronze medal performance at the 1995 edition of EuroBasket, Croatia has failed to finish higher than seventh in the competition. They enter Friday’s night game with a optimistic outlook for the tournament.
“I expect the gold,” Croatian star guard Gordan Giricek said. “It’s a competitive way of thinking. If we are there to compete, then I’m thinking of winning the title, it is the only possible way to reason.”
For Bulgaria, the drought has been far longer. A perennial European team in the 1950’s and 60’s, Bulgaria’s participation in this year’s EuroBasket marks their first appearance since 1993.
|Gordan Giricek is vital to Croatia's EuroBasket hopes|
Bulgaria’s first attempt at a victory in over a decade will be no small task by going against a Croatian team consisting of NBA talents such as Giricek and Zoran Planinic and Maccabi Tel Aviv big man Nikola Vujcic.
Despite the challenges ahead, Bulgarian head coach Rossen Barchovski is optimistic.
“Faith is the most important word for us. I believe in my players, they know it and they proved they deserved that trust with the way they played in the qualification games,” he said.
The game features a pair of top perimeter scorers in Bulgarian team captain Todor Stoykov and Croatia's Giricek. In the six qualification games, Stoykov led the team in points (19.3), rebounds (6.2), assists (4.0) and steals (1.3). Giricek, considered one of the top shooting guards in Europe, started in 44 games with the Utah Jazz this past season.
Bulgaria’s young and inexperienced team, which consists of the guard tandem of 19-year-old twins Dejan and Kalojan Ivanov, will have to rise to the challenge quickly against Croatia’s more experienced roster.
"I believe that we have enough weapons to stay in the game and if we are strong enough mentally, we can do it," Bulgarian guard Filip Videnov said.
GAME: B1 – Croatia vs. Bulgaria
RECORDS: Croatia 0-0, Bulgaria 0-0
KEY MATCH-UP: Bulgaria’s lefty forward Todor Stoykov and Croatia's Gordan Giricek can both put up points in a hurry.
INJURIES: CRO - Croatia shooting guard Marino Bazdaric has been ruled out of EuroBasket because of a wrist injury. BUL – After struggling with a knee injury, guard Yordan Bozov has recovered and is ready for the competition.
OTHER NOTES: Dejan and Kalojan Ivanov were members of Bulgaria’s 2004 U18 roster.