While the NFL and college football dominated the sports landscape this weekend in the United States, EuroBasket 2009 continued in Poland, where football isn't nearly as popular. Or so I hear at least. Nicolas Batum and Team France continued their tear through the tourney, winning twice to remain undefeated through the first five games. Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and the rest of Team Spain, while still struggling with consistency, kept their chances of advancing alive by going 1-1 on the weekend.
It's Official: The French Are The Favorites
As the EuroBasket rolls on it is becoming more and more apparent that France, while neither deep nor veteran, is the most talented team in Poland. Their starting five, a combination of speed, length, and basketball IQ, is the best in the tournament. Vincent Collet pretty much plays an 8-man rotation, but you can get away with that when your starting five averages 25 years of age. And now fatigue becomes less of an issue with teams playing ever other day as opposed to every day during the preliminary round.
The French are now one of two undefeated teams left in the tournament (Turkey is the other) after Greece lost to Russia Sunday, a Russian team France already beat. Les Bleus already punched their ticket to the quarters by winning their first game of the qualifying round against Macedonia, but they've still got plenty to play for with a top seed in the quarterfinals up for grabs.
(By the way, that's one of the great things about EuroBasket: there is always something to play for. Teams are trying to qualify for the World Championships, so even though a team might not have a snowballs chance of winning the tournament, they're still going to go hard the whole time.)
There's really not much to say about France's 83-57 demolition of the Former Yugoslavian Republic Of Macedonia (that's not my explanation of Macedonia; it's what they actually go by) other than Les Bleus are a much, much better team. F.Y.R.O.M made the qualifying round despite going 1-2 in the preliminary round, but from what I can gather that's considered somewhat of a triumph for a team nobody expected much of.
Nic Batum finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds and a block in just 21 minutes. He only missed two shots and he made the only three-pointer he took. Collet got to rest all of his starters for the first time in the tourney, with no one in the starting five playing more than 21 minutes.
The French got more of a test yesterday against Croatia but still managed to come away with a relativity comfortable 87-79 victory. Batum struggled a bit from the field, going 2-for-6 on two-point shots, but he made up for it by going 3-for-5 from three and 5-of-7 from the from the line. Nic finished with 18 points, 5 boards and 2 steals in 36 minutes. Tony Parker did the heavy lifting again for Les Bleus, scoring 24 while getting 6 rebounds and 6 assists. Boris Diaw made 4-of-8 threes on the way to 15 points.
The weirdest line from the game courtesy of Croatia's Marko Popovic. Popovic scored 30 points in 27 minutes without attempting a single two-point shot. He went 5-of-7 from three and 15-of-18 from the line. I don't think I've ever heard of such a thing. And how does a guy who doesn't have a single two-point bucket get to the line 18 times?
Greece is up next for France on Tuesday. If the French can pull it out they lock up the top seed in the quarterfinals and establish themselves as the class of EuroBasket. That game is scheduled to start at 9:15 am Portland time and it's listed on the ESPN 360 schedule, so I'd recommend checking it out live if you have the means.
Down But No Where Near Out
The Spanish national team has been disappointing. There's really arguing that point. Maybe it's the absence of Jose Calderon. Say what you will about Ricky Rubio's potential, but he's no where near the player right now that a healthy Calderon is. Or it could be the team acclimating to the new coaching staff. Both Rudy and Pau not being 100 percent certainly doesn't help either. Whatever the case, it's probably to the point where it has to be assumed that the Spaniards just aren't going to round into their World Championship form, at least in this tournament.
Good news for Spain is that their qualifying group is pretty dang weak. Only two of the six teams in the two qualifying round group get eliminated, so the Iberians still stand an excellent chance of making the quarters. Lithuania was supposed to be one of the favorites, but they've already been eliminated from moving on, so that's one down. Spain need only beat one of the other three teams (Slovenia, Poland or Serbia, Turkey is guaranteed to advance) to move on. So lackluster performances aside, Team Spain still has a better than average chance of moving on to the knockout stage. My dream of a France v. Spain showdown is still alive.
Team Spain suffered their second loss of the tournament Saturday against Turkey, a team that has established themselves as legit contenders for the EuroBasket title, and they're doing it without getting huge numbers from Hedo Türkoglu. Hedo might be the leader, but it's guys like former Trail Blazers second round pick Ömer Asik and Ersan Ilyasova of the Milwaukee Bucks that are exceeding expectations at EuroBasket.
For what it's worth, Rudy did more than his fair share in Spain's 63-60 loss. Mallorca's Finest ended the night missing only two shots on the way to 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals. Pau Gasol had a decent game, finishing with 16 points and 9 boards, but outside of those two no one showed up offensively for Spain. Juan Carlos Navarro and Ricky Rubio, Spain's starting backcourt, went a combined 2-of-11 from three.
Hedo took five shots, making only one and he turned the ball over 4 times, yet the Turks still won. Asik had 13 points and Ilyasova put in 15. Two guys named Semih Erden and Kerem Tunçeri each added 11. Turkey had balance, Spain didn't. Ballgame.
Spain bounced back this morning with a 84-70 victory against a disappointing Lithuania squad. As noted above, the Lithuanian's are now eliminated with the loss, putting their chances of making the World Championship in jeopardy. Somewhere Arvydas Sabonis weeps.
The margin of victory gave Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo the luxury of resting the starters, Rudy and Pau specifically. Fernandez played 21 minutes and finished with 11 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and a block. Pau lead all scorers with 19.
Lithuania could do Spain a solid by beating Serbia on Wednesday, but that seems unlikely at this point since the only team they've managed to handle so far is Bulgaria.
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned Victor Claver. Well, that's because he hasn't played but two minutes in the last three games. Seems like he's relegated to mop up duty behind Jorge Garbajosa, Alex Mumbru and Felipe Reyes at the 3/4 position. He showed some flashes of brilliance against Great Britain, but I guess it wasn't enough to earn anything more than garbage minutes. Too bad.
Spain draws Poland on Wednesday. A win assures Spain a spot in the knockout round. The Pols won their first two games against Bulgaria and Lithuania, but they've been 0-3 since. No game seems to be easy for Spain at this point, so even though Poland has struggled lately, there's no reason to think they'll be a pushover, especially in front of their home crowd with a shot of advancing on the line.