Spain team to beat at European championship
Packed with talent and experience, holders Spain look stronger than ever as they head into the European championship in Lithuania as favourites.
Six of the 12 players in Spain's roster ply their trade in the NBA, including Los Angeles Lakers power forward Pau Gasol and new acquisition Serge Ibaka, an Oklahoma Thunder forward who was granted Spanish citizenship last month.
The Congolese-born Ibaka, who played in the Spanish league for three years before moving to the United States in 2009, was brimming with confidence after Spain, described as pundits as Europe's "dream team," won seven of their eight warm-up matches.
"I can already see myself playing the final because we are looking good," Ibaka told reporters after Spain completed their build-up with a pair of emphatic wins over Australia.
"Everyone is motivated and for me it's a living dream to play with one of the best forwards in NBA history," said Ibaka, referring to Gasol who won the 2010 NBA title with the Lakers.
Ibaka's inclusion has added more depth to the already menacing presence Spain have in the paint, where Gasol's younger brother Marc and veteran Felipe Reyes should constitute a wall for most of their rivals.
Their back-court looks just as impressive with point guards Ricky Rubio and Jose Calderon set to carve out clean-cut positions for Juan Carlos Navarro and athletic forward Rudy Fernandez, two of Europe's most lethal perimeter shooters.
With only the winners and runners-up qualifying automatically for the Olympics, Spain know that any slip-up will once again be fatal in the August 31-September 18 tournament.
Hosts Lithuania were the only team to beat Spain in the build-up to the European championship and the frenetic home support will add more wind to their sails.
Basketball is hugely popular in Lithuania, a Baltic nation of 3.2 million who won two successive European titles in the late 1930s before, having re-emerged as an independent nation following the break-up of the Soviet Union, a talented generation clinched the third in 2003.
Lithuania will play the Spaniards in the opening stage, featuring four groups of six teams, but both nations are likely to be among the top three in each group who advance.
The second stage is something of a phoney war as it features two groups of six with the top four in each group progressing to the quarter-finals, where the real business begins.
The whole knockout stage will be played in the impressive Zhaligiris Arena in Kaunas with a capacity of 15,442.
Lithaunia's coach Kestutis Kemzura, who guided the team to a third-place finish in the 2010 world championship, acknowledged his weakened team would have to play stronger defence to challenge for a podium finish on home soil.
"Last year, we had (forward) Linas Kleiza who was scoring 20 points per game and (guard) Jonas Macilulis but they are not with us and we are still struggling," Kemzura said after a drubbing by Slovenia in last Friday's friendly.
"We have to step up our defence and if we can stop our rivals from scoring more than 70 points, we've got a chance.
"We had a stronger team spirit in Turkey but I don't want to complain because we have good players here who need to learn to fight together as a unit and, to do that, winning the opening game against Great Britain will be vital," said Kemzura.
Britain, already qualified for the Olympics as hosts, are unlikely to make an impact in Lithuania but facing Europe's top sides should be a useful experience for the team whose outstanding player is Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng.
France, on the other hand, could figure as the tournament's dark horses if they advance from the toughest group in the preliminary stage also including Italy, Germany, 2009 runners-up Serbia, Latvia and Israel.
The French have an outstanding starting five led by triple NBA champion Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, but lack of depth on the bench could be a setback during a gruelling schedule of 11 games in 19 days for teams which reach the knockout stage.
Germany, champions in 1993 and bronze medalists in 2005, will rest their hopes on talismanic power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who led the Dallas Mavericks to a memorable 4-2 win over the Miami Heat in last season's NBA finals.
Nowiztki, a versatile and unselfish team player who overshadowed Lebron James in the final series, is also capable of acting like a one-man army when the going gets tough for his team mates against stronger and more talented rivals.
Those traits will be vital if Germany are to finish ahead of a strong pack chasing either a medal or a top-six finish, which secures an Olympic qualifying berth in next year's playoffs.
Serbia appear to be the strongest in that contingent, but Croatia and Slovenia also have respectable squads capable of reaching the latter stages of the tournament.
Montenegro, playing in their first major tournament as an independent nation, are an unknown quantity while Bosnia and Macedonia will start as underdogs along with Poland, Belgium, Bulgaria, Portugal, Finland and Ukraine.