Aug 31, 2011, 11:16 AM EDT
In less than a year, the Olympic basketball tournament will be taking place on European soil. Even if there are times the rest of Europe doesn’t really want to claim England.
Starting Wednesday, the Olympic qualifying tournament for Europe got underway – also known as EuroBasket, or the European Championships. In that part of the world a title in this is as big or bigger than an Olympic title, but this time around the top two finishers in this event get an automatic berth in the London Olympics. Finishers three through six go to the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament next summer to fight with teams from around the globe for one of the final spots in the games.
EuroBasket is filled with NBA players and some of the best teams in the world. We’re going to be writing quite a bit about this tournament over the next fortnight, so here is a little primer of the teams to watch (for more in depth stuff, check out The Painted Area, and follow them through the tournament).
Spain: They are the clear favorites and they are loaded with NBA talent: Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez. The guys who don’t play in the NBA are experienced stars on Europe’s biggest stages. So they came out in their opener and sleepwalked to an 83-78 win over Poland — lethargic play in the early rounds by Spain is a sign that it’s a big tournament. They can be their own worst enemy. In that game against Poland, Pau Gasol had 29 points on 12 shots, while Rubio posted a line of 0-0-0. For Spain, anything short of a gold and qualifying for the Olympics is a let down.
After that, things are pretty wide open with a number of teams who could get that second Olympics spot.
France: They have NBA players Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and Ronny Turiaf. They will be one of the best defensive teams in the tournament and if they can score they will be a threat in any game. But look for the offense to be streaky.
Lithuania: They played well at the World Championships last year and they are the host of this event — home teams do very well in international competitions (see Turkey in the World Championship finals last year). The guy to watch here is Toronto’s recent draft pick (No. 5 overall) Jonas Valanciunas, who looked dominant at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships and looked good against Russia in a recent game. The team is loaded with experienced, good European players such as Darius Songaila.
Germany: They have the best front line in this tournament with Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Like the Mavericks, they surround a good front line with a lot of shooters. One key to watch is Group B with Germany, Italy, France and Serbia — four good teams but only three advance out of group play to the knockout round. There is no room for error (Italy should lose out, but they will not go quietly).
Serbia: The player you know is Nenad Krstic (formerly with the Thunder), but what they bring is some of the best teamwork in a tournament often known for good teamwork. They have had the same team playing together for three straight summers. That matters.
Turkey: They boast almost as much NBA talent as Spain with Hedo Turkoglu, Omer Asik, Semih Erden, Ersan Ilyasova, and Enes Kanter (not as high a level of talent as Spain, but this is a good lineup). They played very well at home in Istanbul for the World Championships (losing only to the eventual champion USA) but how will they do away from home? This is not considered a mentally strong team, but if they put it together watch out.
You can stream all the EuroBasket action on ESPN3.