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FIBA World Cup 2014 preview: Croatia aiming for best finish in two decades

A talented Croatia squad is hoping to earn its first FIBA medal in 20 years at the 2014 World Cup.

Jamie McDonald

Croatia enters the 2014 FIBA World Cup with as much momentum as the team has had in some time. After placing fourth at Eurobasket 2013 -- the team's best finish since 1995 -- the team has a chance to return to old heights in international basketball with a strong showing this fall.

The history of Croatia's team stands out in international basketball. A powerhouse in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union thanks to superstar Dražen Petrović, Croatia began to collapse in major international competitions following Petrović's death in a fatal car accident. After earning a silver medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, finishing behind only the legendary Dream Team, Croatia finished third in the 1994 World Championships in Canada. However, the team failed to qualify for the tournament from 1998 to 2006 and only recently has it again shown signs of being a legitimate presence on the international scene.

That makes the 2014 World Cup especially exciting, because Croatia is indeed a much improved team entering the tournament. Led by a gifted group of offensive players, this group should easily be able to top the 14th-place showing from four years ago.

How they got here

Croatia earned its invitation to the 2014 World Cup by virtue of its strong finish at Eurobasket 2013. Five other teams landed qualification as a result of the tournament: France, Lithuania, Slovenia, Ukraine and Serbia. Europe's top team, Spain, earned automatic qualification as a result of being the host country.

Croatia posted an 8-3 record during last year's Eurobasket, including victories over Slovenia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. The team was knocked out in the semifinals by Lithuania, then lost by 26 points to Spain in the third-place contest.

Key Players

Bojan Bogdanović: The team's leader during its impressive run last year, Bogdanović will be leaned on again to power Croatia in the World Cup. A talented scorer who's finally joining the NBA this year after signing a deal with the Brooklyn Nets, he'll likely rack up points in the big tournament.

Damjan Rudež: Another player making the NBA leap after signing with the Indiana Pacers, Rudež will be one of the starting forwards for Croatia. Between him and Bogdanovic, the team has a clear one-two punch leading its scoring effort.

Roko Ukić: Croatia's starting point guard and national team captain might be familiar to you from his two-year NBA stint with the Raptors and Bucks. Coming off an injury-marred final season with Panathinaikos in Greece, he's returning to Croatia with Cedevita Zagreb, but he'll continue to fill his duties as a leader for the national team beforehand.

Ante Tomić: A second-round pick by the Utah Jazz back in 2008, Tomić is a 7'2 behemoth who currently plays for Barcelona in Spain. A member of the All-Euroleague First Team the past two seasons, he's a limited defensive player despite his size but shows surprising offensive skill around the basket. His ability to protect Croatia's rim will ultimately play a huge role in how far this team goes.

Dario Šarić: He won't play a major role on this team at such a young age, but Šarić is arguably Croatia's most talented player. A first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, this will be the first chance for many 76ers fans to get a legitimate glimpse at one of their key building blocks.

Medal Chances

Arguably the favorites to win Group B, the bigger challenges for Croatia will come once elimination play begins. Defense will be a massive question mark for this team throughout the tournament, and how guys like Tomić and Ukić perform on that end of the floor could ultimately determine this group's true ceiling.

A medal isn't out of the question, however, given the variety of talented offensive players populating this roster. That would mean beating the likes of France, Brazil and/or Spain, though, so Croatia remains a long shot even if the possibilities are there.

Schedule

Group B

Aug. 30 vs. Philippines

Aug. 31 vs. Argentina

Sept. 1 vs. Senegal

Sept. 3 vs. Greece

Sept. 4 vs. Puerto Rico

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