By Yarone Arbel
|Anton Maresch averaged 16.5 points and three assists in Austria's first two games ever in the U20 European Championship Men Division A|
Coming into the U20 European Championship Men the national team of Austria didn't get a lot of attention.
After all, this is the first time ever the country is playing in Division A in the U20 Championship and the first time in 25 years any men's youth national team from Austria is playing in a European Championship.
Things seemed even less promising for Austria considering the changes the team made since last year.
Back then, as the hosts of the Division B games, in the lovely and greeny Oberwart, the Red and White enjoyed the presence of Rasid Mahalbasic, a Slovenian-born 2.08m big guy who grew up in Austria and is considered a rising prospect in Europe.
Last year he combined 16.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 69.7% shooting from the field.
He could have been a force here in Bilbao, Spain as well, yet Mahalbasic, as a 1990 born prospect, finished his journey last year in the youth competitions by giving his team the ticket to Division A, but couldn't help them again this year.
Yet Austria still had one treat hidden in the face of Anton Maresch.
Standing at 1.92 meters and playing both guard positions, although he's more shooting guard than a classic point guard, Anton came out of nowhere and quickly caught the eye of the spectators.
So far he's averaging 16.5 ppg on 50% from the field, 3.5 rpg and 3.0 apg and ranks in the Top 20 of the championship in eight different categories.
Playing for the first time in Division A has its influence on the players coming from Austria as Maresch shared with the official website of the competition.
"We have never played in a place like the Bilbao Arena that is so big and modern compared to the basketball gyms we're used to in Austria and in the Division B games.
"This is already exciting by itself for us."
Yet the big swing obviously doesn't stop there.
"It's the first time for us playing against players of this level. Heck, there are guys here like Nikola Mirotic that played in the Euroleague Final Four with Real Madrid and other players who will be the future stars of European Basketball."
Maresch is one of the main reasons Austria came close twice to shocking giants and became the sweetest taste and most refreshing scent in the 2011 U20 Championship.
The draw set them up with Spain, Greece and Turkey - three powerhouses often in all three youth categories and obviously with the senior teams.
Yet if someone expected three huge blow, reality had some tricks up its sleeve.
In the first game Austria faced Greece and led for three quarters, after already standing more than 10 points above the Greeks, and staying just two points behind with less than five minutes to play.
In Day 2 against Turkey it was the exact same scenario, until Austria ran out of air and scored only four points in the closing quarter, and Turkey still only edged them 72-67.
"Coming in here I knew it was going to be difficult, but all I was thinking is that I want to just go on the floor, not fear anyone and do my best," confessed Maresch.
Not having any fear is a clear character in Maresch's game who's one of the toughest players who stepped on the floor in this competition, and his hard nosed style is one of the things the average spectator easily notices.
Yet talent is surely there as well and the skilled guard showed he can score from far and close range against different defenders, and despite the fact the opponents' defence is clearly focusing on him.
He started to play ball around the age of 9, and until the previous season he played for the club in his home town - Graz.
In the last season he moved to play for Klosterneuburg, where he averaged in the first Austrian division 9.5 ppg playing for coach Werner Sallomon, the same coach who's leading here the U20 team.
"I believe Anton has a bright future ahead of him, but it's still a long process," says coach Sallomon.
"He needs to get more mature and gain more experience by playing long minutes against senior players.
"He could play for a much higher level than the Austrian league, but he must go step-by-step and not just into a situation that can could limit his development."
The two almosts got to the leader of the Austrian team who showed his big frustration after both games.
"We were so close to get these wins, but it slipped out of our hands.
"Twice in a row we were just a few minutes from making a huge win, but couldn't make it and it's not easy.
"After the loss to Greece on Day 1 we sat down and talked between ourselves and with the coaches how to make sure it won't happen again, but Turkey was almost the identical scenario and that's why it was so frustrating."
Austria have already lost any chance to make the Qualifying Round and will fight to survive in Division A in the 13-16 Classification Round, yet before that, one last game in the Preliminary Round Group C against the intimidating Spanish team is awaiting them.
Yet even if Austria and Maresch will lose for the 3rd time in a row, and even if they eventually slip down back to Division B, nothing will take away from them two refreshing and surprising appearances that almost shocked Greece and Turkey.
Austria have already won great respect here.
Now it's up for their pride to find the path to stick around Division A for one more year.