| ||Paul Nilsen is a freelance basketball journalist writing for various web-sites and publications across Europe. If you would like to contact Paul you can e-mail him here firstname.lastname@example.org. |
There are two teams heading for Wroclaw with expectations at opposite ends of the spectrum, but who will both be without key players when they set off for Poland.
To complete our preview of Group D, we look at how Lithuania can cope without their ‘megastars' and still try to challenge for a medal, while also figuring out whether surprise package Bulgaria can win their first Eurobasket game in two decades without their talismanic guard Ibrahim Jaaber.
Six months ago Lithuania were one of the leading frontrunners for EuroBasket 2009 gold. Since that time, their status has dwindled perhaps not dramatically, but enough to cause a little concern after a string of high profile withdrawals from the squad.
It now looks like ambitions might have to be re-aligned slightly but only to be expected without the stunning array of talent that is Kaukenas, Siskaukas, Jasikevicius and Macijauskas.
Despite their depleted roster, Lithuania will probably still remain as one of the main chasers in the pack behind Spain. Even if the anticipated colour of any medal might have changed, they will be confident they can get both feet on the podium in Katowice.
Coach Ramunas Butautas certainly has plenty to ponder to make that happen. Instead of having players naturally fulfilling positions and having to decide which of his talented superstars he needs to sit down and for how long, the tables have turned a little.
Now, without any true natural successor to the likes of Jasikevicius, he has to think about which new players he can trust in games and that possibly means a new mentality for the head of the Lithuanian team.
Fortunately he has little to think about in terms of discipline, smarts, hustle and an unrelenting commitment to his team ethic which his players almost always deliver for him.
With their star men on board, Lithuania would have been pretty much ‘no brainers' for the podium. Without those names, they will have to fight to make it to the last four. However as everyone in European and indeed World basketball knows - when the going gets tough, this tough nation gets going.
Even with a strong of major absences, their depth and resilience should ensure they are in the shake-up at the business end of this tournament.
Key Man: Linas Kleiza is a player who epitomises the hard-nosed edge to Lithuanian basketball. The former NBA man has recently made the switch to Europe at club level with Olympiakos and is going to prove pivotal in Poland. He is better in a national team vest than his numbers suggest but he will be well shackled. Teams will key in on his scoring threat and if he can find a solution to this problem, Kleiza could be the key. If he can't break the chains imposed on him by opponents, a medal could be out of reach.
Sleeper: At this level and at 22 years old, Mantas Kalnietis is a sleeper of sorts and also a possible ‘X Factor' for his team in Poland
X Factor: Kalnietis looks (at this stage, but it could still change) the probable favourite to be given the nod for the troubled point guard spot. How he copes with this if the responsibility comes his way, especially in crunch time, could make or break the tournament for Lithuania. In fact for any of the players given that role if not Kalnietis, they too become the ‘X Factor'.
Weak Points: The lack of a proven playmaker at the point guard position. With Jasikevicius no longer available to direct operations, it is a void that could prove difficult to fill and particularly in the latter stages of the tournament. Delininkaitis is more of a two guard but is being piloted at the point, while Mazutis and Kalnietis have not yet proved they have the class to compete at the very highest national team level. The perimeter shooting and particularly in crunch time when someone needs to pull out a big triple also looks to be a concern.
Strong Points: Depth, team ethic and toughness, particularly in the frontcourt and the wing spots. In the paint, Lithuania have some nice depth. They have an embarrassment of riches to choose from including Marijonas Petravicius a real monster in EuroCup last year, Robertas Javotkas, Paulius Jankunas and finally not just one Lavrinovic, but both twins! While on the wings, Linas Kleiza provides a potent threat.
Wish You Were Here: Ramunas Siskauskas, Rimantas Kaukenas, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Arvydas Macijauskas
What fans should pack in their suitcase: A notepad and a pen to take notes on how to improve the tournament even more for when Lithuania host EuroBasket in 2011. Maybe also some address cards to distribute to we can all have the potential use of a sofa in case we have trouble booking those precious hotel rooms when the time arrives!
Movies and Movie Titles for Lithuania: I think that ‘Deep Cover or ‘Deep Impact' pretty much reflects the depth and strength in reserve of this nation who have lost their megastars but can still challenge/.
Key To Success: You have to think that much will depend on who is trusted to run the point position. Absolutely critical with no one outstanding candidate and that decision will be pivotal to how Lithuania proceed. Teams will work on denying the big men the ball inside and disrupting the usually slick passing style of Lithuania and so the backcourt has to really shoot the ball well or penetrate effectively. It will be intriguing to watch. Coach Butautas has some real decisions to make in this area of his team.
Tournament Prediction: 1-4
In just five words: Teamwork will get them through
Written off by bookmakers across Europe as tournament no-hopers, without talismanic star Ibby Jaaber, without a single win in Eurobasket since 1989 and pitched in a tough group with Lithuania, Turkey and Poland - it doesn't look too good on paper.
In fact it poses a serious challenge for legendary coach Pini Gershon and perhaps one of the biggest he has ever faced meaning he will have to muster every last drop of his experience and ability to motivate players.
However when Gershon samples his first taste of Eurobasket action, he will know that his team are only forty minutes away from having the last laugh and achieving their goal - namely winning a group game and probable progression.
Bulgaria proved during qualification they won't be overawed by anybody with Gershon instilling self-belief and confidence in his players which helped to dispense a major nation like Italy.
However, the big difference this time is that Bulgaria won't have the talent of Ibby Jaaber at their disposal. While much of the pre-tournament talk has been about the crushing loss of Nowitzki for Germany and Deng for Great Britain, make no mistake that the loss of Jaaber is an absolute hammer blow for Bulgaria.
A strict follower of his Islamic faith, Jaaber can't attend due to religious commitments leaving a hole, or perhaps more accurately, a giant crater to fill. For Jaaber was a near forty minute man during qualifying, top scoring, dishing up assists galore and a trademark beast defensively.
It now looks like Gershon has to make a straight choice between EJ Rowland and Andre Owens as to which naturalized player will somehow try to fill the boots of Jaaber and bring the same impact to the team - not a task to be relished.
Bulgaria do have a decent sprinkling of both talent and role players that Gershon can harness to good effect. Todor Stoykov is a veteran player who can get it done while Filip Videnov plays in the ACB and is a great shooter. The Ivanov twins can be hit and miss but if their heads are right, they too could show their qualities. Notably their volatility and passion have already caused some turbulence during preparations.
That shouldn't worry Gershon too much though. He wants his guys fired up and if that particular spark lights a fire under his team which can then be fanned in the right direction, then the underdogs might just find some real bite.
Key Man: Filip Videnov is hugely important to Bulgaria as it is often his perimeter shooting that gets Bulgaria through tough games. This was none more evident than in the dramatic narrow win against Italy in qualifying. He had some injury problems last season but is back firing on all cylinders and his potentially devastating contribution from the arc will be pivotal.
Sleeper: Chavdar Kostov is just 21 years old but a talented and versatile guard who Gershon trusts. He has just enjoyed a super World University games and played almost double digits per game during qualifying for the senior team. Without Jaaber on board, his role could expand slightly and he might surprise a few people.
X Factor: Basically whichever American player is chosen in the naturalized spot. That decision and their subsequent contribution could be the difference between expected failure or alternatively, making everyone (including me) eat their words.
Weak Points: Where do I start? Well perhaps it is unfair battering Bulgaria too much but suffice to say that no in depth breakdown of the team is required. An overall lack of proven quality and depth at this level sums things up (particularly in the frontcourt.)
Strong Points: Bulgaria can at least call on a hugely experienced coach in Gershon while the players will certainly work hard. They have a few streaky scorers in the guard and small forward spots who could make games interesting if they combine being aggressive on offence with good decision making and maintain their discipline.
Wish You Were Here: Ibrahim Jaaber
What fans should pack in their suitcase: Some laughing gas. Let's face it, if you don't laugh, you only cry and without the gas, there might be tears for supporters of the so called ‘no hopers'.
Movies and Movie Titles for Bulgaria: At risk of being labelled as a doom merchant and making out like Bulgaria will definitely get a hiding in every game - something that could blow up in my face..., there is ‘Drag Me To Hell', ‘Misery' or even ‘Apocalypse Now'.
Key To Success: When success is winning a game, it is more simplistic and the key will be whether their spiky and volatile approach can be channelled into a positive energy on the court. If Videnov and Stoykov can get points on the board early and find momentum then Bulgaria just need to hang around in games and a chance could come along. Stranger things have happened.
Tournament Prediction: 13+
In just five words: Hit their ceiling after qualification