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Group C: Spain get ready for liftoff in Cluj-Napoca, Croatia on their heels
CLUJ-NAPOCA (FIBA EuroBasket 2017) - Spain and Croatia may already be secretly eying Istanbul all the way from Cluj-Napoca as the clear-cut favorites to advance from Group C, with the other teams likely battling for whatever is left on the table.
Czech Republic, Hungary, Montenegro and Romania will also want to get in on the action and that opportunity will very much be there, with the fight for the other two tickets to the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Final Phase expected to be an evenly-matched nail-biter.
Preparation game result: 4 wins, 1 loss
2015 placing: 9th place
Major talking point: Having last won a medal more than two decades ago at FIBA EuroBasket 1995, the now Aco Petrovic-coached Croatians are eyeing the podium once again.
Injury update: Mario Hezonja, Luka Babic, Marko Arapovic (Miro Bilan, Zeljko Sakic, Rok Stipcevic, Ante Zizic, Ivica Zubac unavailable)
Key player: Bojan Bogdanovic
The bottom line: Croatia may be missing a lot of their exciting talent, especially in the front court, but the two-man show of Dario Saric and Bojan Bogdanovic is guaranteed to have you at the edge of your seat no matter what. With most of the game revolving around the sure-fire star duo, consistent contributions from the likes of Dragan Bender, Krunoslav Simon or Roko Leni Ukic could make Croatia a tough team to beat for anyone this year.
Preparation game result: 2 wins, 6 losses
2015 placing: 7th place
Major talking point: The one-two punch of Tomas Satoransky and Jan Vesely that worked oh so well at FIBA EuroBasket 2015 and guided the Czechs to a 7th place finish in Lille is no more after the Fenerbahce big man pulled out of the squad quoting mental and physical exhaustion.
Injury update: Ondrej Balvin, Petr Bendra, Blake Schilb, Pavel Pumprla, Jan Vesely
Key player: Tomas Satoransky
The bottom line: It is difficult to expect Czech Republic to repeat their EuroBasket success from two years ago, with Tomas Satoransky the only returning member of the starting unit. If the 25-year-old Washington Wizards guard and coach Ronen Ginzburg work out a plan how to get the Czechs a ticket to Istanbul, it would be an excellent summer for the team.
Preparation game result: 4 wins, 8 losses
2015 placing: Did not qualify
Major talking point: Hungary return to the Final Round of FIBA EuroBasket after a long 18-year wait, having last appeared in the tournament in 1999, where they lost all three games.
Injury update: (DeAndre Kane, unavailable)
Key player: Adam Hanga
The bottom line: Adam Hanga, who finally ended up with FC Barcelona after a summer-long saga, will be entering uncharted territory with his Hungary teammates. Having swept their Qualifiers group, the Hungarians are in for a much more difficult challenge in Cluj-Napoca. Hanga will not be alone in the battlefield, with scoring ace David Vojvoda and big man Akos Keller providing enough firepower to consider Hungary a realistic candidate for a ticket to Istanbul.
Preparation game result: 2 wins, 5 losses
2015 placing: Did not qualify
Major talking point: Montenegro could not get out of the Group Phase in their first two FIBA EuroBasket appearances in 2011 and 2013; can they do it under the watchful eye of 70-year-old Bogdan Tanjevic?
Injury update: -
Key player: Nikola Vucevic
The bottom line: By talent alone, Montenegro may be closer to Spain and Croatia than to the rest of the field in Group C but they will also need to prove it on the court in Cluj-Napoca. Nikola Vucevic, Bojan Dubljevic and Marko Todorovic make for an intimidating trio up front, while scoring machine and often underrated playmaker Tyrese Rice will be running the show at the point.
Preparation game result: 1 win, 6 losses
2015 placing: Did not qualify
Major talking point: It has been a long, long wait for Romania to get back on the stage with the big boys, with FIBA EuroBasket 2017 ending a three decade period of struggles. Having qualified as hosts of the Group Phase, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity both for the national team's old-timers and the younger players on the roster alike.
Key player: Vlad Moldoveanu
The bottom line: Yes, it is true, there's no way around it – Romania will be the clear underdogs in Cluj-Napoca. All they can do is hit their Group C opponents with their best shot and fire away like they belong. They might need to be prepared to get right back on their feet if things don't go well right away. The hosts should be a tough cookie, but will not break many hearts if they do not advance to the Final Phase.
Preparation game result: 6 wins, 1 loss
2015 placing: 1st
Major talking point: Pau Gasol has already got it all, but is chasing another gold medal at FIBA EuroBasket 2017. He already has three in the bag and the fourth one could be as difficult to get as any with the big man already 37 years old and many of his usual running mates are not with the team this summer. A title is not the only thing Gasol is after with only 61 points separating the Spaniard from surpassing Tony Parker as the top scorer in FIBA EuroBasket history.
Injury update: Sergio Llull, Victor Claver, Pau Ribas (Nikola Mirotic, Serge Ibaka, Felipe Reyes, Rudy Fernandez - unavailable)
Key player: Pau Gasol
The bottom line: The overwhelming success in past years make the defending European champions Spain the main contenders to lift the trophy in Istanbul more or less by default, even with coach Sergio Scariolo missing key pieces on the roster. Out of all of the absences, Sergio Llull might be the most worrying one, but when you have Ricky Rubio, Sergio Rodriguez, Alejandro Abrines and Juan Carlos Navarro in the backcourt and Pau and Marc Gasol up front with the Hernangomez brothers waiting to chip in, it is hard to imagine Spain settling for anything less than gold.