By Adriana Garcia Senchermes
France will face their biggest test of the year when they go up against Spain in Thursday's second EuroBasket Quarter-Final in Katowice.
Since winning the Additional Qualifying Round to reach Poland, Vincent Collet's side has moved from strength to strength, beating Germany, Latvia and Russia in Group B.
They rode that momentum to triumphs overs F.Y.R. of Macedonia, Croatia and Greece in Qualifying Round Group E and enter the last eight as the only undefeated team in the tournament.
|Youngster Ricky Rubio will face the ultimate on Thursday when he matches up with Tony Parker.|
The Quarter-Finals is where it all started to go wrong for a very good French team two years ago at the EuroBasket in Spain, though, when missed free-throws at the end of the game opened the door for Russia to win and knock them out of medal contention.
The team coached by Claude Bergeaud then lost its concentration and was brushed aside by Croatia and Slovenia in the Classification Round to come in eighth and miss out on the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Despite having a terrific run this year, with San Antonio superstar Tony Parker leading a star-studded cast that also includes fellow NBA players Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf, Nicolas Batum and his Spurs teammate Ian Mahinmi, the reward for a perfect EuroBasket is a last-eight showdown with Spain - the country they beat in the bronze-medal game at EuroBasket 2005 in Belgrade.
Since that time, Spain have won a gold medal at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan and silver medals at EuroBasket 2007 in Madrid and at last summer's Olympics in Beijing.
In their 90-68 victory over Poland on Wednesday, a game that Spain needed to win to advance, Sergio Scariolo's team turned on all cylinders.
The team hit 13 of 25 shots from three-point range, with Juan Carlos Navarro seven of nine, but more importantly they came up with 10 steals and swatted three shots - all three blocks were by Pau Gasol in the first quarter - to help Spain set the tone on defense.
Spain were so good that Poland coach Muli Katzurin said: "We played the best team in Europe tonight and at times, the best team in the world."
At least France will have been able to watch the game.
Now they have to devise a winning strategy against them, something few teams have been able to do in recent times.
"In everyone's head, Spain are the best team," Collet said.
"That's the reason why Tony Parker looked annoyed after our game against Greece."
Collet didn't appear to be pulling out all stops to overcome Greece in their battle for first place in Group E as he had Parker on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
But his reserves were so good, especially Nando De Colo who hit the game-winning shot, that they still defeated Greece.
Had France lost that game, they would have avoided Spain in the Quarter-Finals and the Greeks would have faced them instead.
Spain have made it clear that they are full of respect for the French.
"France is a hard rival," Gasol said.
"They are undefeated and we need to beat them if we want to progress. They have confidence and good players as well as being more rested than us, but we have to win."
France played their last Qualifying Round game against Greece on Tuesday while Spain beat Poland on Wednesday and then boarded a bus for Katowice, arriving at their hotel in the early morning hours of Thursday.
"France creates many dangers," Gasol said.
"Tony Parker is the engine of the team, he has ball possession, he is very fast and aggressive.
"They have a balanced group with players of high level.
"But we will be ready for them."
Last Time Out: Nando de Colo's buzzer beater gave France a 71-69 triumph over Greece in Bydgoszcz on Tuesday. Spain cruised past tournament hosts Poland 90-68 in Lodz on Wednesday.
Head-to Head: France beat Spain 98-68 at the EuroBasket 2005 to win the bronze medal, with Tony Parker pouring a game-high 25 points. The last time the two teams met was in a warm-up friendly ahead of the EuroBasket 2007 in Alicante, a game Spain won 87-72 with Gasol pouring in 20 points.
Key match-up: France's Tony Parker vs Spain's Ricky Rubio. Rubio, selected fifth in this year's NBA Draft by Minnesota, will have a chance to go up against the best when he takes on Parker, the second-leading leading scorer in the competition at 18 points per game.
X-factor: Nicolas Batum of France. Coming off a rookie campaign with the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, Batum was so good defensively that Blazers coach Nate McMillan made him a starter. Don't be surprised if Batum is charged with the responsibility of slowing down his Portland teammate, Spain's explosive Rudy Fernandez.
Statistics: Spain were 13 of 25 (52%) from three-point range in their victory over Poland but just five of 11 (45.5%) at the free-throw line. France were three of 12 (12%) from long range against Greece and made 18 of 22 (81.8%) at the charity stripe.
Sounding off: "It's certain that Spain are the big favorites at the EuroBasket and it is unjust to face them at this stage of the competition but that's the way it is" - France coach Vincent Collet.