FIBA EuroBasket knockout stage preview: Will Spain, France power through?

Christof Koepsel

EuroBasket begins its knockout tournament on Wednesday. Croatia has the best record thus far, but the field includes talented squads from Spain and France along with a darkhorse Italy team and the underdog Ukrainians.

The 2013 FIBA EuroBasket has been more interesting than many expected through the first two portions of the round-robin tournament. Perennial powerhouses Turkey and Greece were eliminated, and a surprising Italian team that was expected to struggle without both Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bargnani has emerged as one of the top clubs in the tournament.

The stakes will rise beginning Wednesday in Slovenia, as the eight remaining teams -- Serbia, Spain, Slovenia, France, Lithuania, Italy, Croatia and Ukraine -- are into the win-or-go-home knockout tournament. The remaining teams are playing for a berth at next year's FIBA World Cup which is a step closer to the 2016 Olympic Games. Since Spain receives an automatic berth as the host team and FIBA Europe is guaranteed six spots, just one of the final eight teams will go home without a FIBA World Cup bid. Nevertheless, there is a lot of national pride on the line for the Eurobasket champion.

Here's a quick primer to the rest of the tournament.

Croatia (7-1)

Croatia has been in decline since the tragic death of Drazen Petrovic in the mid-90s, but they have experienced a resurgence this year, rattling off seven straight wins since losing the opener. Four of those wins have come by fewer than five points, but it has still been an impressive showing for a team that finished in 13th place at this tournament two years ago.

Brooklyn Nets draftee Bojan Bogdanovic will likely join the NBA sooner rather than later. For now, he's killing international competition to the tune of 17.5 points per game, tops among all players still in the tournament.

Bogdanovic isn't the only recognizable name on his squad, though:

  • Ante Tomic, a 7'1 center whose rights belong to the Utah Jazz, is currently averaging 9.4 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, the best average among players still playing.
  • Some projected 19-year-old phenom Dario Saric to be a lottery pick in this year's NBA Draft, but he ended up taking his name out at the last minute. The 6'9 point-power forward is averaging just 5.5 points and three rebounds thus far at EuroBasket, though he has shown flashes of brilliance.


Ukraine (5-3)

Croatia's first-round opponent has never made it to the Olympics and never even finished better than 13th place at EuroBasket. This team is dramatically overachieving in large part due to Mike Fratello, an NBA coaching veteran and a broadcaster, often referred to as "The Czar," that has the team running on all cylinders despite a lack of top-level talent.

  • Sergii Gladyr, a 2009 second-round pick of the Atlanta Hawks that has made a couple of NBA Summer League appearances, leads Ukraine with 13.5 points per game despite making under 40 percent of his shots.
  • NBA journeyman point guard Pooh Jeter is a naturalized citizen of Ukraine. He has been inconsistent, but he has a pair of 20-point games and is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc.
  • Slava Kravtsov, a 6'11 center that played 25 games for the Detroit Pistons before being moved to the Phoenix Suns this summer, is the only other recognizable name on the squad. Kravtsov is averaging 6.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and over one block per game in 18 minutes in the tournament.

Ukraine is the underdog, but if it can slide into the top six and qualify for the FIBA World Cup, it could signal a change in the European basketball hierarchy.

Lithuania (6-2)

Lithuania has a lot of history in international basketball, but they lost Sarunas Jasikevicius, Darius Songaila and Rimantas Kaukenas to retirement following last year's Olympics. The new-look Lithuanians have looked to NBA veteran Linas Kleiza as their go-to guy, but the recent Raptor has responded with just 9.8 points per game on 36 percent shooting from the field in the tournament.

Still, Lithuania has plenty of players capable of producing.

  • Prized Toronto Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas has been up and down, but on the whole, he's averaging a solid 7.9 points and six rebounds in limited minutes.
  • Mantas Kalnietis has been a part of the national team since 2006, but he left a lot to be desired when Jasikevicius and Co. wanted to rely on their young guns. He's picked up some slack as the team's leading scorer in the tournament, but that average is just 9.9 points per game.
  • Donatas Motiejunas' playing time has fluctuated wildly this tournament. The Houston Rockets big man is averaging 5.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in just over 11 minutes per game.

Italy (6-2)

Spurred by a 40-percent performance from beyond the arc, Italy has raced to a surprising 6-2 record despite a difficult schedule and the absences of Bargnani and Gallinari. Swingman Alessandro Gentile has put himself in consideration for a first-round pick next year, averaging 14.6 points, shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc and having three games of at least 20 points.

New San Antonio Spurs guard Marco Belinelli has also been solid, though his 14.1 points per game have come inefficiently. New Detroit Pistons forward Luigi Datome is third on the team with 14 points thanks to a solid 41.7 percent performance from three-point range.

Serbia (5-3)

Serbia actually ended up as the tournament's top seed after finishing atop Group E, but the downside is they'll have to face pre-tournament favorite Spain, who underachieved in the round-robin portion of the event. Serbia has a strong recent international pedigree though, finishing second at the 2009 EuroBasket and fourth in the 2010 FIBA World Cup.

Former NBA big man Nenad Krstic, a current standout for CSKA Moscow, is the team's leader, averaging 16.7 points per game. But he's not the only NBA-relevant player on their roster.

Spain (5-3)

Nobody would've been surprised if Spain ran the table in the tournament, so it's shocking they were the last of the eight teams to qualify for the knockout round. They have less to play for than any other team, since they already qualified for the 2014 World Cup as the host team, but a squad featuring so many NBA players still should've been able to breeze through this tournament. Nevertheless, they made it to the quarterfinals, and everything that happened beforehand doesn't matter.

Spain, as usual, is littered with NBA talent.

  • Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol is averaging an underwhelming 13.8 points and eight rebounds, mostly due to three down games where he scored a combined 10 points. He made up for that with 32 points and 10 rebounds in a close loss to Italy over the weekend.
  • Rudy Fernandez's NBA career ended unceremoniously, but he's still solid in international play. The former Portland Trail Blazers swingman is averaging 11 points per contest, good for second on the roster.
  • Jose Calderon will play for the Dallas Mavericks this year, but the 32-year-old has started showing his age on the international scene. If it wasn't for a 23-point, five-assist performance against Finland over the weekend, his 9.4 points per game average would be considerably worse.
  • Sergio Rodriguez played four NBA seasons, but the 27-year-old has decided he'd rather star in Europe than be an NBA role player. He has looked solid for Spain in the tournament, averaging nine points, shooting 46 percent from beyond the three-point arc and showing off his playmaking.
  • Ricky Rubio is a starting point guard in the NBA, but only the fifth-leading scorer on Spain. The Minnesota Timberwolves standout is averaging 8.3 points and and three assists, though he has totaled just 12 points and five assists in Spain's last three outings.
  • Victor Claver struggled in his rookie season with the Portland Trail Blazers and has had just one double-digit scoring game thus far in the tournament.

    Slovenia (5-3)

    The host team has never qualified for the Olympics and finished in seventh place at the last EuroBasket, but having home-court advantage has helped. It also doesn't hurt that Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic continues to improve, as he's averaging a career-high 15.2 points and an almost 3-to-1 assist ratio.

    Slovenia's other players to watch include the following:

    • Zoran Dragic is Goran's younger brother and a former Houston Rockets Summer Leaguer. The younger Dragic is second on the team with 9.5 points per game.
    • Bostjan Nachbar's best days are beyond him, but the 33-year-old NBA veteran is averaging 9.2 points and 4.8 boards for the Slovenian squad.
    • It's worth noting that Beno Udrih and Erazem Lorbek, the top two players Slovenia could've featured, are both not playing in this tournament.

    France (5-3)

    France was favored to win this tournament at this time last year, but the absence of Joakim Noah, Kevin Seraphin and Ronny Turiaf has weakened its frontcourt. Tony Parker is still Tony Parker though. The San Antonio Spurs star is averaging 17.2 points and 3.9 assists while making more than 53 percent of his shots.

    Despite some notable absences, the French team is still formidable.

    • Blazers wing Nicolas Batum is averaging 11.7 points and nearly six rebounds, but his 22.6 percent clip from beyond the arc leaves a lot to desired.
    • NBA washout Alexis Ajinca wasn't useful in his first NBA stint, but the 7'1 center could get another shot after averaging 10.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and a 1.5 blocks per game for France.
    • Boris Diaw is up to his old tricks, filling the box score with 10.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.
    • Other NBAers include Nando de Colo, another Spur that is fifth on the team with 8.8 points; Mickael Gelabale, who is averaging nearly eight points per game; and Johan Petro, who has tallied just three points and two boards per contest.
    ***

    The quarterfinals begin Wednesday with Croatia taking on Ukraine, Lithuania facing Italy, Serbia taking on Spain and Slovenia going up against France. The champion will be crowned on Saturday.

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