No one, not even Slovak Republic head coach Ivan Rudez, disputes that it is fair to consider Georgia and Montenegro as the heavy favourites in Group F of the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers, which tip off on Wednesday.
The Slovak Republic has never achieved qualification to the EuroBasket Final Round (since the break-up with the Czech Republic in 1992) while the fourth team in the group, Albania, last took part in the showpiece event as far back as 1957.
Georgia meanwhile participated consecutively in the last three EuroBasket tournaments while Montenegro played in both the 2011 and 2013 editions and narrowly missed out on last year’s event. Besides, the rosters of both these teams feature players who ply their trade in the NBA or in top European leagues.
"[Georgia and Montenegro] have length inside and dominant centers," Rudez, who is a two-time Swiss league champion with Lions de Genève and the older brother of Croatian international Damjan Rudez, told basket.sk.
"Montenegro is headlined by Nikola Vucevic, who has long been an established big man in the NBA and is doing great at Orlando Magic as well as Bojan Dubljevic, who is a key player at a big club like Valencia. Georgia meanwhile have Giorgi Shermadini who has extensive experience at the top European basketball level and of course Zaza Pachulia, a long-time NBA player.
"From this perspective, it will be important for us to focus on our defence in the paint and the rebounds. Our perimeter players will need to help the big men in that aspect. We must not forget that both these opponents have excellent perimeter players, Montenegro for example have the naturalised American Derek Needham and Georgia have Michael Dixon, who is an excellent shooter and knows how to resolve any situation after the pick'n'roll."
While Rudez acknowledges with frankness the objective strengths of the two group favourites, he also warns them that they would be wrong to underestimate his team: “It will be difficult for us, but our opponents know that we play hard and we will not give up,” the Slovak Republic coach said. “I am sure they’ve watched our friendly games. I believe that our energy and will power can help us fight against these strong teams.
"I do not believe in the notion of a single leader, I think a team needs several players to step up. In Stanislav Baldovsky, we have a leader who can energise the team, we have quiet leaders who set the example on the court such as Michal Batka and Richard Korner. Nenad Milosevic is another leader, for the way he has to teach the younger players, as well as playing unselfishly. On the defensive end we have proven leaders in Milan Ziak and Martin Bilik."
The Slovak Republic concluded preparations with an 86-83 victory over Austria in a scrimmage behind closed doors on Saturday evening. They had previously defeated Denmark and Switzerland and lost to Ukraine in a four-nation warm-up tournament they hosted in Prievidza.
"I did not care about the results, but about the kind of performances we showed," Rudez said. "We are improving every week. The most important thing for me was finding out that we are a tough team. I want this to be our identity, to be a team that can fight for everything.
"If we focus on that, the results will come in the future. I am also happy about how the atmosphere of harmony has been created in the team, with the more experienced players teaching the younger in a climate of healthy competition.”