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First trimester done: What grades do the national teams deserve for February?
MUNICH (Germany) - FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers got underway with the 32 national teams participating in the competition playing two games each in February. Following the conclusion of the first of three windows, the time has come to review the start of their campaigns.
You already know the standings after two games, but now it's time to imagine this was all just a trimester in school, and think about the grades each team should get.
Should a 2-0 Belgium get a better grade than a 2-0 Croatia? Should a 0-2 North Macedonia get a better grade than a 0-2 Turkey? Without further ado, those and similar questions are about to be answered.
The teams are sorted out alphabetically - hopefully that helps you scroll to your team of interest faster.
Results in February: -15 v Ukraine; -7 v Slovenia
Austria had a pair of good games, especially the one where they wouldn't go away against Slovenia, the reigning champs. But in the end, they've suffered two defeats, with even more trouble coming up in November, because they have to take on a 2-0 Hungary side, arguably the biggest winner of the February window.
Results in February: +21 v Lithuania; +16 v Denmark
How crazy can a national team get!? Belgium were in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers, looking like they were hitting the bottom. Instead, they handed the reins over to Dario Gjergja, and the Filou Oostende head coach did what he's used to doing in Belgium all these years - win. Belgium are the feel good story of February, they've dismantled Lithuania like they were college boys playing against elementary school boys, then they kept their composure to stay serious in Denmark. Beautiful work.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Results in February: +1 v Latvia; -5 v Greece
Winning on the road is always a good sign, that's why BiH were headed towards an A. But, same logic applies in the other direction, too. Because losing at home could be the wrong-doing of the national team in this competition, and Bosnia and Herzegovina dropped a game against Greece in their backyard. Which is why they were headed towards a C, so it's no wonder they got stuck in between with the final grade. Still a lot of work in front of BiH.
Results in February: -10 v Greece; +6 v Latvia
Get it? AAA, as in batteries. Because they had to work overtime in their double OT win over Latvia? Get it? Please? Oh come on, it's a good joke. (Also, real grade would be B. They did their part, defended home court, were within two on the road in Greece with two minutes to play. That's a solid window.)
Results in February: +16 v Sweden; +10 v Netherlands
Fewest points allowed! By some distance, too, because Croatia allowed just 115 points in two games, meaning 57.5 per game. This squad struggled in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers, so it's really good to see them back to winning games, climbing to 2-0, picking up a valuable win on the road in Netherlands. Also, amid this 2-0 success, coach Veljko Mrsic could've used these two games to find answers for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in June, which they will host. It seems he found them, especially on the defensive end.
Results in February: +4 v Denmark; -8 v Lithuania
Overall, just a four point win and an eight point defeat - that doesn't sound so promising. However, Czech Republic were just a quarter away from going 2-0, leading the majority of the game in Vilnius, until Lithuania went mad and did the 24-2 run on 24/02. Also, nice to see Vit Krejci slowly but surely finding his role with the senior team. You'll hear a lot about him over the coming years, for sure.
Results in February: -4 v Czech Republic; -16 v Belgium
No matter what happens, we see Denmark as the winners already, because they are putting themselves on the basketball map. Heroes of the Pre-Qualifiers, they almost stole one on the road against Czech Republic, then they were outmatched by the mighty Belgium. Good news is that Czech Republic did not defeat Lithuania, meaning Denmark have left themselves a window with a win over CZE if all the other scores go their way over the next two windows.
Results in February: +9 v North Macedonia; -6 v Italy
This B+ is more or less in relation to the things that Italy and Russia did in this group, but Estonia will feel like they got an A+++++ because they managed to defeat North Macedonia in North Macedonia, and that could be crucial in the battle for the place at the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 main event. Kristian Kullamae was cooler than anybody else, and he's only 20. In fact, don't be surprised to see Estonia do some damage once all of their prospect reach their prime.
Results in February: -22 v Serbia; +5 v Switzerland
It was a cold day in the sun in Finland, when Serbia froze them over at -22. And it seemed to be even colder in Switzerland, until Sasu Salin and crew came up with a comeback win to salvage the window for Susijengi. Their job is far from over, but dropping a game in SUI would've put them in the D or even F category here.
Results in February: -14 v Germany; +19 v Montenegro
Come on, France. How on earth are we supposed to judge your performances when you've won one in a way that made us think you'll be the group winners, but you've also lost one that made us wonder if you'll make it to the Final Round at all. Waiting for November to give you a real grade.
Results in February: +8 v Switzerland; +4 v Serbia
One thing we've learned over this season. Teams that have Giorgi Shermadini usually win games. Georgia climbed the ladder to finish the window with a perfect record, Shermadini went on to become the only player in both the Team of Gameday 1 and Gameday 2, Thad McFadden confirmed he can knock down everything he throws at the hoop in closing minutes, 18-year-old Rati Andronikashvili is a huge prospect and coach Ilias Zouros made them all look good. So why the minus? Because of the OT drama against Switzerland on Gameday 1, that's all.
Results in February: +14 v France; -8 v Great Britain
Come on, Germany. How on earth are we supposed to judge your performances when you've won one in a way that made us think you'll be the group winners, but you've also lost one that made us wonder if you'll make it to the Final Round at all. Waiting for November to give you a real grade.
Results in February: -7 v Montenegro; +8 v Germany
Come on, Great Britain. How on earth are we supposed to judge your performances when you've won one in a way that made us think you'll be the group winners, but you've also lost one that made us wonder if you'll make it to the Final Round at all. Waiting for November to give you a real grade.
Results in February: +10 v Bulgaria; +5 v BiH
There are different ways to do your thing during these windows. You can try and field a completely young team, like Estonia or Germany, or you can go for a mix of young and experienced, like Croatia or Israel. Or, you could just rely on having the most experienced guys, who know all about stress levels. That's probably the reason why Greece created a team with nobody younger than 25, and in two close games, it proved to be the right decision. Greece never panicked, they are 2-0 at the moment.
Results in February: +2 v Slovenia; +2 v Ukraine
You always dream as a kid of having a big moment right there, in your own arena, in your hometown, wearing the national team shirt, becoming a king for a day. Thanks to this window, Zoltan Perl now realized that dream, hitting clutch shots to take down the title holders Slovenia, and do so in his hometown of Szombathely, Hungary. Then Rosco Allen won the game in Ukraine, with Hungary now owning a 2-0 record, while being only +4. Amazing!
Results in February: +4 v Poland; +24 v Romania
Deni Avdija and Shlomo Group Arena. You know that Romania were destined to fall short in the second game, as the youngster put on quite a show for the capacity crowd in Israel, just like he did in that same arena during the FIBA U20 European Championship 2019. Still, Israel are much more than just an Avdija team. Tamir Blatt and Gal Mekel combined for 18 assists to defeat Poland in Poland, that proves that no matter who plays, Israel will always have elite ball movement.
Results in February: +19 v Russia; +6 v Estonia
Shooting is always an issue when teams come together for a couple of days and have to create open shots and good looks. Well, that is, unless you are Italy with coach Meo Sacchetti. Azzurri knocked down 23-of-52 in the two games in February, giving them a FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers-high of 44.2 percent accuracy from long range. Live by the three... well, live by the three. That's where it ends for this Italy. Because they are 2-0, looking really good again.
Results in February: -1 v BiH; -6 v Bulgaria
So, two defeats. How come they get a C+, you ask? Well, it's because they were two free throws away from being 2-0, since they lost by a single point to BiH, and went on to play double OT in Bulgaria. One other huge plus for Latvia was the fact that Arturs Zagars got a chance to shine. His performance against Bulgaria pushed him into our Top 10 rising stars of the window.
Results in February: -21 v Belgium; +8 v Czech Republic
It was hard to believe that Lithuania could have such a slow day like the one they had in Belgium, especially with all their veterans on board. It could've gone to 0-2 with Czech Republic dominating in Vilnius, too, but Eimantas Bendzius had other ideas, hitting six three-pointers to put Lithuania on board and give them at least a bit of good news. This 1-1 record would be really good for most of the teams, but with Lithuania, we are used to so much more, like 2-0 and +20, they fall into the C class here.
Results in February: +7 v Great Britain; -19 v France
Come on, Montenegro. How on earth are we supposed to judge your performances when you've won one in a way that made us think you'll be the group winners, but you've also lost one that made us wonder if you'll make it to the Final Round at all. Waiting for November to give you a real grade.
Results in February: +7 v Turkey, -10 v Croatia
Have to be excited when Charlon Kloof can raise the roof. This is what he did in Turkey, handing the hosts their first defeat in Ankara in... Hell, could be first defeat in Ankara, ever. But, the trouble is that the Netherlands lost their home game to Croatia, so they are still not out in the clear. Matchups with Sweden are yet to come, those could be the real deal to see if the Netherlands belong in the 24 or not.
Results in February: -9 v Estonia; -10 v Russia
It's really not looking good for North Macedonia. They had good moments in both of their games, but down 0-2, with a home defeat to Estonia, and two games against group leaders Italy coming up still over the next two windows... Hard to see them repeating the success of 2011 on the 10th of their memorable path to the Semi-Finals.
Results in February: -4 v Israel; +11 v Spain
We were ready to leave a C- when they lost to Israel at home, because losing at home is a massive no-no. But Mike Taylor did it again. Head coach probably came up with an inspiring team talk, just like he did in China during the World Cup, when he made sure the entire world heard about Poland. A.J. Slaughter did the damage on the floor, but Poland have Mr. Taylor to thank for being a big time weapon for them all these years.
Results in February: -13 v Spain; -24 v Israel
Hard to find an upside to the Window if you are Romania. Time is on their side, they don't have to make the Final Round next year, and to be completely honest, this was a horrible draw for them. An up-and-coming Israel, a stubborn Polish side, plus the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 winners Spain. Probably the toughest possible draw for a team out of the Pre-Qualifiers.
Results in February: -19 v Italy; +10 v North Macedonia
Sure, Vitaly Fridzon had that 23-point game against North Macedonia to give Russia the win, but keep an eye on Dmitrii Kulagin. He is becoming the true leader of this generation, averaging 16.0 points, 7.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.0 steals over the two games in February. But not even the two of them could help against Italy, that -19 should be erased from Russia's memory asap. It's also the reason why they get only a B- here.
Results in February: +22 v Finland; -4 v Georgia
Did Serbia lose a game at home in February? Yes. Should they stress about it? Nope. Because a 22-point win over Finland put them in the right direction, while the four point defeat to Georgia had more to do with Thad McFadden and Giorgi Shermadini playing out of their minds than with Serbia playing a bad game. That stuff happens sometimes. Don't forget that Serbia lost a game to Estonia in the last Qualifiers, don't forget that they lost to Finland not so long ago in the Qualifiers... But still, it's a rock solid team and it would be a major surprise to see them not fighting for a podium spot in 2021.
Results in February: -2 v Hungary; +7 Austria
Basketball is easy when you have a guy named Jordan. Slovenia's newest recruit is a former resident of Ljubljana, where he played for Petrol Olimpija back in the days, and Jordan Morgan is doing his part for his adopted homeland. The man in the middle scored 35 points in two games, while shooting 15-of-22 from the field, grabbing 16 rebounds and compiling for 40 in efficiency rating. No wonder the crowd loves him already. Take a B+ for his contributions, and for being one turnover away from a 2-0 record.
Results in February: +13 v Romania; -11 v Poland
No reason to be concerned, not even after the 11-point defeat to Poland in Zaragoza. Spain get a B, which they will turn into an A- by the time the next window finishes, then A in the last window and finally A+ in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021. Especially if the 19-year-old Carlos Alocen keeps up his 9.0 assists per game tally going.
Results in February: -16 v Croatia; +7 v Turkey
Let's be honest, Sweden looked like an F team for most of their opening game against Croatia. Especially when you had in mind that they were yet to face the mighty Turkey. But, powered by nearly 11,500 fans in Stockholm, Sweden played out one of the most entertaining games in their national team history, showing that there is an absurd amount of potential hiding over there. B+ is the highest we can go for a team that looked like an F team on Gameday 1.
Results in February: -8 v Georgia; -5 v Finland
You know what's the difference between Switzerland and, let's say, Greece? All of that Greek experience in big time games and big time plays, they used it to perfection in this window. Switzerland could've used just a slice of it, and they would've been at 2-0. But they dropped a chance to upset Georgia, and they dropped a game which they led for what felt like 39 minutes against Finland. Learning experience is here. Now use it in the next four games to go at least 2-2 and stay alive in the hunt for the Final Round.
Results in February: -7 v Netherlands; -7 v Sweden
You know that sports fans in Turkey are extremely passionate. They probably view this 0-2 as a disaster, something that nobody expected and it's putting their whole national team project in danger. The truth is completely different for the first and the last part of that equation. Okay, nobody expected this, but 0-2 is not a disaster when you're talking about a combined -14 difference, something that Turkey can clearly make up for, and the national team is in no danger at all. They are still the hot favorites of the group, and could finish 4-2 easily. Hence the C, instead of an F or a D.
Results in February: +15 v Austria; -2 v Hungary
So close to an A+ for Ukraine. They dominated their first game on the road, and it took a wild Rosco Allen layup with less than a second to play to put them at 1-1 in the second game. But the job is nearly done and one more win over Austria would send Ukraine even closer to the next round in November. You know what that means? It means that another win or two would buy Ukraine some much needed time to allow coach Ainars Bagatskis to work on details and get everybody clicking on offense. That could be the difference between staying in the middle of the European pack or making a big push for the Quarter-Finals or better in 2021. Both Bagatskis and Ukraine have been there recently, so it wouldn't be a surprise, really.
*The grades are entirely subjective and is in no way a true, accurate ranking systems. All comments are purely those of the author.
Igor Curkovic is a Croatian freelance writer, Live Blog aficionado and meme expert who watches a lot of basketball and brings both the power and the rankings to the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers.