The second group stage of the Eurobasket is finished, and after epic showings and disappointing losses, it is time for Europe's best 8 teams to fight their way through the knockout stage. All games are best-of-one and everything can happen. Jump in for the previews and some references to the group stages.
Serbia vs Spain
The Spaniards still are, on paper, the favorite to win this tournament. They haven't been flawless this time around, not by a long shot, but they were professional and took the games they needed in order to come this far, contrary to other teams (I'm looking at you Greece). Serbia have been performing well but haven't shown the touch of greatness that made people root for them in previous tournaments. Serbia are probably missing key backcourt players for the meeting, but although I doubt Nenad Krstic will shut down Marc Gasol, Serbia's second string features better post players than Spain. If Serbia wins, it will be a hard-nosed, slow game. Spain on the other hand have the talent and athleticism to blow this game wide open at any minute. It is their game to lose, and Dusan Ivkovic must do some serious ass-kicking from a coaching standpoint to balance the roster differences.
Slovenia vs France
Despite losing surprisingly easily to Finland on the last game of Group Stage 2, the hosts are coming in strong, having already beaten favorites Spain and powerhouses like Greece and Italy. They also have home court advantage, something that could affect the more inexperienced players of the french roster. The Slovenians finally look like they are ready for the spotlight, and what place better than home for this. The French, on the other hand, are leading the tournament in scoring, and looking not to waste one more of Tony Parker's expeditions with the national team. France enjoys the talent edge in this match, but Slovenia plays (almost) every night at their ceiling. In a momentum-based tournament this will be yet another game of runs, and the team with the colder blood will win in the end.
Croatia vs Ukraine
Croatia hanged on to beat Greece in double overtime Monday, earning themselves the last spot in the group. The Croats failed to disappoint for the first time in a long series of tournaments, and seem to be favored by this matchup. If they manage to keep the game slow their big men will win them the game, and they will rely on their perimeter players to get them out of sticky situations. Ukraine is not an one-man-show though, despite Eugene Jeter taking the guys in blue and yellow by the hand and leading them to the big stage. SG Sergii Gladyr provides a scoring punch and has been helping with rebounds, and Ukraine will try for the upset against Croatia. If the game becomes a shootout Ukraine has a puncher's chance, but this game should be in croatian control from the get-go.
Lithuania vs Italy
Lithuania went a perfect 3-3 in their second round games, beating Ukraine, Belgium and France. Their victories against France and Belgium were surprisingly easy, and maybe this young team can return Lithuania to the medal podium again. A seamless change of guard at the center position has Jonas Valanciunas manning the middle, and our home boy Donatas Motiejunas playing spot minutes next to him. The success of Lithuania is even more surprising if one considers that their only *real* backcourt is Mantas Kalnietis, who by all rights should not be able to compete against the best European PGs for 30 minutes a night. Italy are playing their best tournament in recent memory, beating Greece and Spain in group stage 2. Yet they are still not difficult to read - their game is more based on individual skills than on a holistic game plan, and all the games that their talent couldn't win during the first half were won by late game heroics. If Lithuania can stop one-on-one penetration they have nothing to fear, as Italy rolls with momentum. I expect Lithuania to win this game, if only because they have a plan b in offense.
The games will be exciting. Depending on my obligations I might do recaps, or jump straight to the semifinals previews. Thanks a lot to those who read and commented - you guys are the only reason I keep writing this :)