EuroBasket's Group B certainly isn't as awestriking as a Group A that features three true title contenders, but it has the headliners. Namely, it has the headliner of the year: Dirk Nowitzki, who will rejoin Germany after grabbing his first NBA Championship with the Dallas Mavericks. Tony Parker is also back in European competition, rejoining the French. But the best team in Group B might be a team with no NBA All-Stars at all.
FIBA Rank: No. 8
EuroBasket 2009: Silver
FIBA Worlds 2010: Fourth
Serbia's been excellent of late, after falling apart during the 2008 Olympic cycle. Since missing the Beijing cut (and by so small margin), Serbia has finished second at EuroBasket 2009 and fourth last summer in Turkey. And the team has done it without a single NBA star; the most experienced NBA player on the Euro '11 roster is Nenad Krstic, who has since returned to Russia. But the team has a roster full of solid European players, led by guard Milos Teodosic, who made the all-tournament team at the '10 Worlds.
Serbia's chief rival in the group is France, but the teams don't play until the final day of the first group stage, at which point the standings may already be determined. Serbia should definitely enter that game undefeated.
FIBA Rank: No. 14
EuroBasket 2009: Fifth
FIBA Worlds 2010: 13th
France was a disaster in Turkey last summer, but played without Tony Parker, Joakim Noah and Rodrigue Beaubois. Parker and Noah are back, and obviously an NBA Finals MVP in his prime and a would-be NBA All-Star center make all the world of difference. Noah's probably the best center in the tournament, though Marc Gasol of Spain could get the edge due to far more international/FIBA experience. Likewise, it'd be difficult to pick any EuroBasket point guard over Parker. At other positions, France has Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and ... well, Mickael Gelabale. But still! That's a lot of top-level talent.
But France has struggled to get over the hump, even in Euro competition, since a surprising silver in the 2000 Sydney Games. Parker's France has missed two consecutive Olympiads, and making it to London is a huge priority. Getting to the EuroBasket championship game will do the trick, and finishing on top of Group B will help the draw going forward. Keep an eye on that France-Serbia game if there's something to play for, as it will be the best early test of France's mettle.
FIBA Rank: No. 12
EuroBasket 2009: 11th
FIBA Worlds 2010: 17th
When Dirk plays, the Germans perform well. When he doesn't, Germany stinks. This is not rocket science. Nowitzki is among the best players in the world. He matters a ton in international competition, just as he does in the NBA. Given that he's fit to play -- and will be joined by Chris Kaman, the oddest sidecar buddy one could have -- Germany should do well.
France and Serbia are deep, balanced teams, though; while no one in the world can defend a clicking Dirk, those two squads can push the rest of the German squad (a rusty Kaman included) hard. Nowitzki will have to be the tournament's top scorer to give Germany a chance of meeting its goal, a top-six finish, which comes with a bid in the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament to be held next July. To get there, Germany has to advance to the second group stage over Italy.
FIBA Rank: No. 7
EuroBasket 2009: DNP
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Don't be fooled by Italy's high FIBA rank: that's a remnant of the team's silver in Athens '04. That team no longer exists: this is a team focused on the unique talents of Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli. Which is to say this is a team focused on shooting threes.
The Italians didn't have Gallinari a year ago in Euro qualifying, and as a result nearly failed to make the tournament. But Italy was granted an invite by FIBA as a wildcard, and now must justify that decision with a strong performance against some familiar faces in terms of NBA talent. Bargnani remains the key, but Gallinari has to play well to relieve pressure on the big man. The entire team's defense will be tested against France and Germany. We'll see if Italy can put it together and advance over one of those two teams.
FIBA Rank: No. 34
EuroBasket 2009: 13th
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Latvia is a rather young team, and will get younger: the nation won bronze at the under-18 Euro championships last summer, led by Davis Bertans and Edmunds Dukulis leading the way. Unfortunately, neither will play in Lithuania, and veteran Andris Biedrins is likewise out. Latvia will continue to build for the future, but that leaves the team short for this Euro contest.
FIBA Rank: No. 27
EuroBasket 2009: 15th
FIBA Worlds 2010: DNP
Israel's hope of graduating past the first group stage likely died when Omri Casspi went down with injury. Maybe they were already dead due to Dirk's arrival; regardless, things don't look good. Israel does have captain Tal Burstein, fellow vet David Blu as well as Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin. But the top four in this group look significantly stronger.