By David Hein
Spain and Serbia will face off in the EuroBasket 2009 final with Greece playing for the bronze medal. European basketball fans should get used to seeing those three nations challenge for titles well into the future.
In the last three summers, that trio of nations has captured eight of the nine titles in the annual U16, U18 and U20 championships while collecting six additional medals of another color - for a total of 14 of the available 27 medals.
Serbia lead the way with five titles - one U16 crown and two U18 and U20 golds each. Greece were top of the podium twice (one U18 and U20 title each) while Spain captured the 2009 U16 trophy.
|Spain's Ricky Rubio first burst on the scene at youth level.|
Serbia's impressive haul of medals - which does not even include the gold medal at the 2009 University Games in Belgrade - has not been lost on others.
"I think it's great. They have showed that they belong here. They have a great team and a great program for young players," said Slovenian Bostjan Nachbar, who experienced first hand just how good the young Serbs are in his team's 96-92 overtime loss in the semi-finals.
"We haven't seen Serbia in top European basketball for maybe seven, eight years. But they're coming back. They showed that tonight."
In fact it has been eight years since Serbians even reached the European men's Semi-Finals as they won the EuroBasket 2001 title under the flag of Yugoslavia. Two years later Serbia & Montenegro lost against eventual champions Lithuania in the quarters before finishing sixth.
At home in 2005, Serbia & Montenegro failed to reach the quarter-finals and then two years ago Serbia were bounced from the Preliminary Round in Spain.
But the next generation of Serbians was already on its way to winning gold medals.
"This victory and reaching the final means a lot. We have such a young team. But all of these guys have had so much success in the past so we know how to win," said Serbian sharpshooter Uros Tripkovic, who at 23 is actually one of the elder Serbs.
"We have a good base and this generation of players definitely have a lot of confidence in themselves," said Serbian coach Dusan Ivkovic.
"We are working hard and our target was to play in a final at 2012 Olympics. It came a little early but what are you going to do?," joked the coach.
As if an average age of 22.3 for the Serbian team was not scary enough for Europe, the U18 All-Star Game before the quarter-finals on Friday featured five Serb players who won the U18 gold medal in Metz, France this past summer.
The Serbians, however, are not the only team with a group of young stars rising through the junior ranks and knocking on the senior national team.
Greece won the U18 crown in 2008 and the U20 crown this past summer with a core of seven players who also captured the silver medal at the 2009 U19 World Championship in New Zealand.
In fact, it was a special project that the Greek federation came up with those players to play at both tournaments - which took place in two different continents in two different seasons of the year but just five days apart.
"This group has so much talent. That's why we decided to do this project. They know each other so well that we wanted to try it," said Greek U20 coach Kostas Missas, who only had one day of practice with his seven U19 silver medalists before the U20 event began.
And the U20 team could have been even better as two members of the Greek senior side in Poland - Kostas Koufos and Nick Calathes - were eligible to play a the U20s.
In addition, the U20 MVP Kostas Papanikolaou was even invited to the Greek senior team camp and was among the last two players cut by coach Jonas Kazlauskas.
The Spanish meanwhile have preached their system of running and pressing defense throughout the youth teams. And it has produced plenty of awards - U16 silver in 2007 and gold in 2009 as well as U20 silver in 2007 and bronze the past two summers.
Two of Spain's brightest young stars not named Ricky Rubio have also worked their way into the Spanish national team in Sergio Llull and Victor Claver.
"The good thing about Spain is that we have good guys who are coming in and making things competitive. The three of them are great players," said Spain veteran guard Jose Manuel Calderon.
Spanish, Serbian and Greek fans can rest assured that 2009 will most likely not be the last time their teams challenge for EuroBasket medals.