We are only weeks away from Europe’s premier basketball tournament, the 2011 European Basketball Championships, or Eurobasket as it’s more commonly referred to.
No other basketball tournament in the world rivals the passion, flair and intensity that Eurobasket delivers.
The 2011 edition will be held in Lithuania from 31st August through to 18th September.
Once again, many pundits are predicting a Spanish armada.
Spain have been the most dominant European basketball team of the last five years: 2009 Euroleague Champions, 2007 runners-up, 2008 Olympic silver medallists and 2006 World Champions.
They still have the shell of the squad that has led them to this success including Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio.
However, the Spanish will have their toughest assignment yet to take out gold at the Zalgiris Arena come September 18 with a number of nations fielding full strength and experienced line-ups in spite of insurance issues with their NBA players due to the current lockout.
Most of the biggest NBA names in Europe will take part in the tournament, notably Spain’s Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, and Rubio; Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks/Germany); Ben Gordon and Luol Deng (Great Britain); Hedo Turkoglu (Turkey); Tony Parker and Joakim Noah (France); and Danilo Gallinari (Italy).
The six teams that appear to be in the best position to take out the title are Spain, Serbia, France, Greece, 2010 World Championship silver medallists Turkey and the hosts Lithuania. Unfortunately for Germany, they’ll need more than the ‘Dirkus Circus’ to really contend against some of these teams.
The Serbian national team will be one of the youngest and fastest in the tournament with no player in their squad over the age of 28. They will be lead by the experience of former Boston Celtic Nenad Krstic.
However, their backcourt of Milos Teodosic, Aleksander Rasic and Nemanja Bjelica will be where they are most dangerous, with all three players having great court vision, deadly outside shooting and interchangeability in the one, two and three positions.
Greece have one of the best team systems in world basketball and possess a great inside-out game. They will be lead once again by Antonis Fotsis who along with Nikos Zisis, are the only survivors from the 2005 Eurobasket championship-winning team.
With their experience along with a good mix of youth including Denver Nugget Kosta Koufos, expect Greece to be one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament.
Turkey were the surprise packet of world basketball as hosts of the 2010 World Championships, where they went on an eight-game undefeated run, knocking off some of the most dangerous teams in the tournament like Russia, Greece, China, France and Serbia on their way to the silver medal at the hands of the United States.
They retain the majority of their squad from that tournament, including Turkoglu, Ersan Ilyasova, Omer Onan and Omer Asik, along with the exciting addition of Enes Kanter.
They have a great team designed for tournament basketball and will be full of confidence coming into this Championships. However, without a vocal home crowd, I don’t expect them to become another Cinderella story this year.
Lithuania have a very rich basketball history and are a nation that are always at their best in tournament play, medalling in nine out of the 19 major tournaments (Olympics, World Champs and Euros) for which they’ve qualified.
This includes gold in the 2003 Eurobasket, bronze in 2007 and bronze at the 2010 World Championships.
The hosts have one of the oldest and most experienced teams in the tournament, including one of the greatest players in the history of European basketball in Sarunas Jasikevicius.
They have amazing depth with the best bench in the tournament, including 2003 Eurobasket MVP Jasikevicius, Darius Songaila and 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championships MVP Jonas Valanciunas.
They will be backing up starters including three members of BC Zalgriris, the current Lithuanian League Champions: Robertas Javtokas, Paulius Jankunas and Mantas Kalnietis.
Despite their experience and depth, Lithuania have a tough task after being drawn in Group A, the toughest of the tournament including heavyweights Spain and Turkey, along with Great Britain, Poland and an undetermined qualifier that may wear them out early on.
Despite this, bookies love them, at $4.00 to take out the title.
As mentioned earlier, Spain are coming into this tournament as the favourites with many experts and fans predicting them to take out the title. Bookies love them also and have them at an unbackable $1.80 to win.
They will definitely be around in the latter stages of the tournament. They are the most physical team in the tournament and with the likes of the Gasols and Ibaka they will be very tough to match up in the post.
They also posses deadly outside shooters with Fernandez and Navarro and have the luxury of two great court generals in Calderon and Rubio.
However, there is one team that has a chance to stop them… France.
France will be coming into this addition of Eurobasket with their best chance yet to bring the title back to Paris.
The Frenchmen are renowned under-performers in this tournament, having qualified 33 out of the 35 times it’s been held and only medalling in seven of them, most recently a bronze in 2005.
They have never won European basketball’s crown jewel. This squad that they have named is something special. It’s a great mix of team players, game winners, physicality, size, speed and shooters.
French national team stalwarts Parker, captain Boris Diaw and Florent Pietrus will be joined by newly nationalised center Joakim Noah who dominated the Eastern Conference in the middle for the Chicago Bulls this year, and rising star Nicholas Batum.
Their bench will be helped by the ball of energy that is Ronny Turiaf, one of the best role players and team ballers in the NBA.
With Diaw, Turiaf, Noah and Pietrus down low, they have the size and strength to match-up favourably with Spain.
Parker is a proven game winner and big game player who at 29 is still one of the most formidable point guards in the NBA.
The outside shooting of Batum and Nando de Colo who had a great season for Valencia last year will be valuable too.
Paying $15, their favourable draw with a relatively easy group including Serbia, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Latvia, should see them come into the second round unfazed. The size of Serbia and Germany shouldn’t be a problem for them.