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Can France stay unbeaten in Second Round of European Qualifiers?
After breezing through the First Round, France enter Group K with a perfect record of six wins and not a single loss, which means that they are one of the five European teams to remain unbeaten. As the team ranked third in the FIBA World Ranking presented by Nike, they will look to carry this momentum into the fourth window, with a view of coming out on top of the group, when February comes around.
Their biggest scare during qualifying so far came in the shape of a feisty Russia team, who took them to overtime before the French won in the final seconds. Other than that, they have taken control of each of their games, including a 50-point road victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of the wins have come in the shape of second half rallies, after trailing at the half on three occasions.
Where a lot of teams are zigging, France are zagging; they are doing most of their damage close to the basket, as most teams become increasingly active from beyond the arc. They have scored 145 2-pointers in the First Round, making them the only team to average more than 40 points in the paint per game.
Their staunch defensive play has played a large part in their success, as only a tough Lithuanian team have allowed fewer points per game, in the European qualifiers. Only Russia managed to score more than 65 points in a game against France, with 78 being the highest amount of points scored against them during the First Round.
Shooting at an efficient rate has been key for the French, as they head into the Second Round with a field goal percentage of 49.9%. Depending on available playing personnel, France will look to increase their volume of scoring, as qualification progresses, as they average 79.8 points per game.
Although the French team sheet often boasts a string of NBA talent, it can be argued that the most integral player throughout qualifying has been AS Monaco guard, Paul Lacombe, who has averaged 9.2 points, 2.2 assists and 2.2 steals through the six games – the second most in Europe. He has been joined for the entirety of the First Round by veteran forward Boris Diaw, who has dished out 3.5 assists and brought down 3.8 rebounds, while scoring 8.7 points per game, shooting an efficient 56.2% from the field. With Diaw having now announced his retirement from basketball, the squad will look to fill the void in performance and leadership.
France have several players with an elite ability of protecting the rim that they may call on as qualification progresses, including Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who has so far only featured in two games. The most formidable defensive force has come in the shape of 7’2 big man, Moustapha Fall, who has logged more blocks than any other player in European qualifying (11) and has served as a defensive anchor in every game.
Scoring responsibility has mostly been shared throughout the team, but 31-year-old guard Nando de Colo has offered an impressive scoring punch in his two appearances, averaging a team high of 15 points per game, shooting 71.4% from the field and 100% from the three-point line.
During the fourth window, France will travel to Bulgaria and then host Finland in Montpellier.
Bulgaria (FIBA World Rank 50)
Although Bulgaria finished third in their First Round group and only won two of their games, they achieved a higher point differential than the subsequently eliminated Iceland team. Ahead of tip-off, France will be expected to earn a heavy road win in Botevgrad.
If Bulgaria wish to prove expectations wrong, they will need strong performances from one of their most dynamic young stars – Aleksandar Vezenkov. The 23-year-old forward made a buoyant impact on keeping Bulgaria afloat through the five games in which he featured, averaging 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2 assists.
Finland (FIBA World Rank 21)
After winning their last game against Iceland back in July, Finland would be filled with optimism if it wasn’t for the absence of Lauri Markkanen, who won’t feature in the fourth qualifying window. Instead, they will now lean on regular contributors such as veteran point guard Jamar Wilson and Shawn Huff, who have shouldered much of the playmaking responsibility so far. On paper, this appears to be France’s game to lose.