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Group D preview: Survival of the fittest in the 'Group of Death'
PRAGUE (FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017) - Every tournament needs a ‘Group of Death’ and that is exactly what the letter 'D' stands for during the Group Phase of the Final Round when it comes to Belgium, Latvia, Montenegro and Russia.
With arguably four Quarter-Final-level teams, no group is likely to be more intense or combative, even if Russia are looking like a favorite to land top spot. In fact, Alexander Vasin and his players are being predicted as having the tools to eventually step onto the podium for the first time since they won the title in Poland six years ago.
Returning Russia to their former glories will rest on the shoulders of a young team, which rather curiously, will be led by their youngest member in the phenomenal Maria Vadeeva, who caused a sensation when she debuted as a 16-year-old at the last edition. Now a EuroLeague Women winner at Dynamo Kursk, she's like a machine who will inevitably produce great things.
Fellow forward Ksenia Tikhonenko has shown her fighting qualities and terrific rebounding ability, while young Zhosselina Maiga and Raisa Musina are part of a hugely exciting new generation. Even if the loss of Tatiana Vidmer is a blow, Russia have Natalia Vieru who is a proven top-level performer in the paint.
The backcourt and the wings are very well-stocked too, with the combo capabilities of the naturalized Epiphanny Prince absolutely priceless. Elena Kirillova has seen and done it before as MVP in 2011, while Natalia Zhedik is also capable of magic from downtown. Throw in the super leadership, defensive capabilities and three-point skills of Evgenia Belyakova and you can see why Russia are a frontrunner.
Belgium are back for the first time in a decade and have a strong case that Emma Meesseman and the legendary Ann Wauters are the best starting combination around under the basket. That gives head coach Philip Mestdagh a superb platform to build from and with daughter Kim Mestdagh one of the most improved wing players on the Continent, they have unquestionable quality.
Much will hinge on control and assurance in the backcourt, with another debutante in Julie Vanloo likely to play a strong role. However, it might be veteran Marjorie Carpreaux who played along with Wauters in 2007, that needs to show the way. Eccentric and entertaining, she's a highlights reel in waiting and these ingredients could help take Belgium into the Quarter-Finals and beyond - even if they are missing guard trio Hind Ben Abdelkader, Julie Allemend and Noemie Mayombo.
If Russia and Belgium are being picked out as slightly more likely to succeed, there looks to be only the width of a hair between Latvia and Montenegro, whose meeting against each other could be decisive.
Both have endured injuries, with Montenegro denied the use of WNBA champion Jelena Dubljevic. But in terms of their remaining core rotation, Spanish play-caller Roberto Iniguez has a strong hand - starting with veteran playmaker Jelena Skerovic and trusted backcourt partner, Snezana Aleksic.
The under-the-radar Bozica Mujovic impressed in the Qualifiers, while Milica Jovanovic has really come alive during preparation. Add the possibility of a ‘twin towers’ combo via Iva Perovanovic and the naturalized Angelica Robinson and you begin to understand even more, why the 'Group of Death' label is being applied.
Finally, Latvia must move on from the era of the legendary Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and even if they have to do so in the toughest pool of teams, they have the personnel to push their opponents hard.
They have a very handy trio in the backcourt and wings of combo guard Elina Babkina, the storied veteran Gunta Basko-Melnbarde and capable shooting contributions of Ieva Krastina.
It's a similar story of competency and reliability under the basket, with Aija Putnina, Anete Steinberga and Kristine Vitola ready to meet the challenge of matching-up against three of the strongest frontcourts in the tournament.
With further excitement around the addition of debutante Paula Strautmane and the dynamic Kitija Laksa, Latvia can't be discounted and might just question why they have not been taken more seriously by pundits.