There is certainly a "group of death" in the first stage of EuroBasket 2011, as Group A managed to include defending champion and World No. 2 Spain, 2010 FIBA Worlds silver medalist and World No. 6 Turkey and host nation/World No. 5 Lithuania. It's just a brutal troika of contenders that have to beat up on each other early. Pity the others in the group: Great Britain, Poland and Portugal. Only the top three finishers will advance to the second group stage, leaving the latter group in deep nerves.
We preview Group A below. Our friends at The Painted Area also have a very in-depth preview.
FIBA Rank: No. 2
EuroBasket 2009: Gold
FIBA Worlds 2010: Sixth
Spain was a wreck in Turkey last summer, finishing the group stage 3-2 and eventually getting knocked out by Serbia in the quarterfinals. But that came without Pau Gasol. As perhaps the second-best player on the continent (behind Dirk Nowitzki), he's obviously a magnificent factor. Serge Ibaka has also been added to the Spanish squad, who with Pau and Marc Gasol make up an almost unfair big man rotation. At guard, the Spaniards count on Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez, four legit NBA-level players. Again, it's almost unfair.
Spain is a favorite for the title, but group play will be a good test. Many would pick Turkey and Lithuania for medals, and Spain draws them back-to-back on September 4 and 5. If there's a consolation, it's that having already faced the group's lower three squads by then, Spain might have already qualified for the second group stage and can play the Gasols lightly.
FIBA Rank: No. 6
EuroBasket 2009: Eighth
FIBA Worlds 2010: Silver
Turkey went undefeated in the FIBA Worlds until the gold medal game against a Kevin Durant-led Team USA. Of course, Turkey played that tournament at home with a full roster and didn't have the toughest schedule. (Their group did feature Russia and Greece, but both teams were wildly disappointing. Turkey killed Slovenia in the quarters and beat Serbia by just one in the semis.) Turkey's poor showing at Euro '09 gives credence to the concern the team might not perform as well without the hyperfocus of a home tournament.
That said, Turkey's cadre of young big men are just coming of age. Omer Asik and Semih Erden are beasts in the making, and Enes Kanter is promising enough (if untested) to become the No. 3 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. At the forward spots are quixotic Hedo Turkoglu and the excellent Ersan Ilyasova, whose been quite good in international competition. (He finished top 10 in rebounding at the Worlds.) Guard play is an issue as always for Turkey, with Spain and even Lithuania threatening to bludgeon the Turks in the backcourt spots.
FIBA Rank: No. 5
EuroBasket 2009: 11th
FIBA Worlds 2010: Bronze
It seemed as if it would be, for a time, over for Lithuania back in 2009 when the team went out with just a single win. But the Baltic state stormed back in Turkey, storming through group play the 2010 Worlds unbeaten with wins over Spain and France, and following that up with a whipsaw win over Argentina. Lithuania gave Team USA as solid a test as anyone, but Kevin Durant (38 points) was too much and LIT settled for bronze over Serbia. But ignore that single loss for a second: Lithuania went unbeaten against Spain, France, Argentina and Serbia. That's mighty impressive.
The squad looks a bit different: Linas Kleiza, the team's best scorer by no small margin, is out due to injury. But legendary Sarunas "Saras" Jasikevicius (now 35 years old) is back, and the great young hope of Vilnius (and Toronto) Jonas Valanciunas is participating. The loss of Kleiza outweighs either addition individually, but together the old star and young sprout can replace the impact. Add in home-court advantage throughout the tournament? For a nation as basketball-crazed as Lithuania, that's priceless. Lithuania's a real threat to knock down Group A and the entire field.
FIBA Rank: No. 56
EuroBasket 2009: 13th
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Great Britain is literally a Johnny-come-lately on the international scene: the national team was created in 2005 to prep for the 2012 London Olympics. One guy eventually got the team there: Luol Deng. The Chicago Bulls' strong forward has played for G.B. when possible over the last several years, helping earn the British this very spot in EuroBasket a year ago, and giving FIBA enough confidence in the program to grant them a host nation bid in 2012. Without Deng, it's unlikely that host bid is granted. Britain has been that awful without him, and the other long-promised NBA star the British can claim -- Ben Gordon -- has never materialized.
The British have done quite well with Deng, and they'll have him in Lithuania. But the competition level will be markedly higher here -- the British were playing the likes of Israel, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium in 2010 qualifiers. Spain, Turkey and Lithuania are from another galaxy. It'll take something like crumbling from one of Group A's powers to get Britain in the knockouts, as well as continued superlative output from Deng.
FIBA Rank: No. 38
EuroBasket 2009: Ninth
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Poland could have been better than Great Britain and put a spook into Turkey or Lithuania ... if only they could have secured Marcin Gortat, the Phoenix Suns' defensive-minded center. But he sat out with insurance problems. Complicating matter further was a last-minute injury to Maciej Lampe, the team's best scorer. Without those two, Poland's in real trouble when it comes to even winning a single game.
FIBA Rank: No. 47
EuroBasket 2009: DNP
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Portugal wouldn't be in this tournament if FIBA Europe hadn't expanded it to 24 teams; the Portugese only qualified last week. Portugal and Poland will likely battle for the bottom of the group.