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Experts: Who will get it done and who won't at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021?
MUNICH (Germany) - With just one more Qualifiers window remaining, the Final Round of the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 is rapidly coming into sharper focus, but how will things turn out?
We have collated an expert panel to let us know their early thoughts on who will and won't be in attendance at the Final Round this summer, as well as who is ready to light it up.
Great Britain Olympian Johannah Leedham-Warner has led her nation at three FIBA Women's EuroBasket Final Round tournaments and is a regular in EuroLeague Women at club level. Jeff Taylor is the voice of FIBA, having commentated on the biggest women's games for decades. Tom Thuillier is a women's basketball fanatic and a key member of the FIBA social media team. Meanwhile Paul Nilsen is FIBA's female hoops specialist, covering women's basketball around the world.
There are still 11 places left to fill in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021. If you had to pick a surprise candidate to reach the Final Round, who would it be?
Johannah Leedham-Warner: Based off history and appearances, it has to be Bosnia and Herzegovina. They haven’t been at Final Round since the 1990s, but are in a position to make a return after adding Jonquel Jones to their roster. While it might not seem a surprise to some because they have been there before, it would be a surprise for me to see them playing there again.
Jeff Taylor: Bosnia and Herzegovina have one foot in the FIBA Women's EuroBasket when you consider they blew out their next two opponents, Switzerland and Estonia, in their first meetings. A little better free-throw shooting in their only defeat, 72-68, to Russia, would have seen the Balkan side stay unbeaten.
Tom Thuillier: I think Bosnia and Herzegovina too because that addition of Jonquel Jones, really has given Bosnia and Herzegovina a new dimension. Don't get me wrong, it’s not all about Jones! Marica Gajic showed once again she’s such a high-class player and the team played really well together. But who would have predicted that they would beat Russia and have a 3-1 record as we stand here today?
Paul Nilsen: Props to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but I think Netherlands could be the one nation that few, if any, people predicted to make it to Final Round in 2021. They are in a great position, although there's work to do and it is balanced on a knife edge. It would be quite something to see the Dutch stepping out for the first time since 1989. And, if you saw their line dancing celebrations after beating Hungary in the Qualifiers, I can only imagine what they will do if they punch a ticket to Final Round.
And what if we flip it around – which leading national team is in most danger of missing the 2021 edition at this stage of the Qualifiers?
Johannah Leedham-Warner: Despite being a host of the previous edition, Latvia are looking like they could miss out. They have been a participant since 2005, which is why I'm calling them a leading nation. Splitting games in the windows has definitely hurt their chances of qualifying as they sit behind both Germany and Croatia in their group. I’m sure they wanted to redeem themselves after their early exit at Final Round in 2019, but they might not even make it this time.
Jeff Taylor: World No. 7 Turkey could be 3-0 but turnovers killed them in narrow defeats to Serbia, especially late in the first meeting that went to two overtimes in Istanbul. For a country that finished runners-up at the FIBA Women's EuroBasket in 2011, came within an eyelash of playing in the last two Olympic Semi-Finals and finished fourth at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018, not qualifying would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Tom Thuillier: Turkey fought hard during the last qualification window and showed they can compete with top teams - such as Serbia - but I'm afraid it won't be enough this time. Considering Isil Alben and Tilbe Senyurek will miss the last window due to long-term injury and their highly competitive group, Turkey is in a dangerous position before facing Lithuania for their last game.
Paul Nilsen: I've been predicting the demise of Turkey for some time because of their struggles at youth level, plus a lack of domestic court time for senior players at club level. Awful at the last Final Round which was not difficult to predict, they're sweating on a spot. They have been ever present at the event since 2005 so if they don't make it, I suspect it will feel very strange to me. Although not as strange as being asked to make tournament predictions more than six months in advance! But as a couple of the panel have already chosen Turkey, I think Hungary are in trouble too, so will single out them. They have a big tradition going back many years and it will be a pity if they miss out, since they have some good young players.
We've seen many players using the FIBA Women's EuroBasket stage to rise to stardom over the years. Who is your break-out candidate this time around?
Johannah Leedham-Warner: Assuming Germany can make it, then Satou Sabally. Despite not playing in the past window, she showed in the previous window what she is capable of, also proving it EuroLeague Women with Fenerbahce. An exciting and versatile player, she's undoubtedly the top player for her country and shoulders that responsibility well. She’s no stranger to a big stage, so Final Round would provide another opportunity to shine and do what she does best.
Jeff Taylor: I really admire the workers, and there is no great worker than the unheralded, determined Marica Gajic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She's averaged 17.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game for Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying. Let see how the 25-year-old performs on the big stage.
Tom Thuillier: Raisa Musina is the leader of the Russian 1998 generation alongside Maria Vadeeva and has never have a real chance to show she can dominate on the senior international stage. A role player in UMMC, Kursk and the national team previously, she has some definite ball skills and can become an impactful star player for Russia.
Paul Nilsen: I've been a fan of Slovenian Zala Friskovec since she was a kid and feel there's more to come. She debuted at the previous Final Round as a teenager but with limited impact. This time she could shine and extend the influence of the excellent core rotation including Nika Baric, Teja Oblak, Eva Lisec and Shante Evans. I must also mention young Marine Fauthoux of LDLC ASVEL Feminin, who I hope will make a bigger splash at the event too. She probably won't log massive minutes or numbers, but it will surely be an increased role for the super smart guard after squeezing onto the bench in 2019. Meanwhile if Hungary did scrape a place, I would love to see Reka Dombai at the event.
Ana Dabovic in 2015, Alba Torrens in 2017, Astou Ndour in 2019. Who will be the MVP in 2021?
Johannah Leedham-Warner: Marine Johannes because very year she gets better and better. It seems like she's in full swing this season. Even though we haven't seen France compete in the Qualifiers, she's shone brightly and astonished us in EuroLeague Women. She seems more confident than ever and I believe if France play through her, she will flourish and so will they.
Jeff Taylor: There are so many candidates ... but I'll go with France's Alexia Chartereau, the 22-year-old whose career is taking off big time. The stretch four is having a great season with Bourges, averaging 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. In the first EuroLeague Women bubble in Sopron, she averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds (don't blame her for Bourges' two defeats to Sopron and Basket Landes). Chartereau already has a prominent role with the national team.
Tom Thuillier: Sandrine Gruda aka ‘The Drine Machine’ operated in full capacity, collecting impressive numbers during the last FIBA Women's EuroBasket and EuroLeague Women campaigns. It would be such well-deserved and huge recognition for Gruda as we have seen her leading her country so many times in recent years. Her consistency in producing top performances and her experience made her my favorite candidate, just ahead of Marine Johannes.
Paul Nilsen: Most probably Sandrine Gruda, so she gets the nod from me. However, I would love it to be Marine Johannes. I'm getting a powerful deja vu and want to shout it from top of the Eiffel Tower when I say that France need to please let this basketball wild horse run free. Give her the license to entertain and she'll deliver. Putting in her chains like in the past would be an act of basketball vandalism. Is that too strong? Oh well, I have been trying to get this message through for quite some time. I once upset the French camp with a column explaining they will never be a Ferrari in terms of their basketball style. But with Johannes in top gear and an open road, they could prove me wrong.
Who will lift the FIBA Women's EuroBasket trophy in Valencia on June 27, 2021 and who will complete the podium?
Johannah Leedham-Warner: Call me crazy after four silvers, but I'm going for France. As well as Gruda, Helena Ciak is playing better than ever and Marine Johannes is, well if you don’t know her by now, then you are not watching this game at all. They have high caliber players and with Celine Dumerc joining the coaching staff, 2021 can be there year. Honestly, it's now or never. The recipe of teamwork, grit and obviously the wonderful trio of Emma Meesseman, Kim Mestdagh and Julie Allemand means silver for Belgium. They are an epitome of a team and will be hungry. Meanwhile it might seem completely outrageous picking Spain for third place, since they have won the last two titles. But with Marta Xargay out (assuming she will not return) will they be able to continue their streak? Despite being at home, I think they will have to settle for bronze being the new gold.
Jeff Taylor: I love the way they Belgium play. They have elite talent at point guard in fearless Julie Allemand and the all-world center, Emma Meesseman. Spain are always a juggernaut and possess passion in abundance. What I also love about them is that if players retire, they don't rebuild. Spain reload. Remember when Amaya Valdemoro and Elisa Aguilar were nearing the end of their outstanding careers and eventually stopped playing after Spain's FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2013 triumph? Spain actually got better. Remember when Sancho Lyttle called it a day? No problem! Say hello to Astou Ndour. Spain will also be at home. The ensemble of France talent, though, is undeniable. They have a handful of potential tournament MVPs and lightning quick players like Olivia Epoupa that can change a game in the blink of an eye with their defense. Gruda deserves a championship and think she's going to get it. I'm going with France at the top of the podium, followed by Spain and then Belgium.
Tom Thuillier: France, since winning in Spain would mean something big for them as Spain took the title away from them so many times including a heartbreaking one on French soil in 2013. It's time for the eternal runner-ups to exploit their full potential and confirm what we've seen this year at the FIBA Women's Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Players like Marine Johannes, Sandrine Gruda, Valeriane Vukosavljevic and Alexia Chartereau are also shining bright in both EuroLeague Women and in domestic leagues. I think that this could bring that extra confidence France needs to go all the way this time.
Paul Nilsen: I didn't read the notes of the others - honestly! But I agree that France will be crowned champions for the first time since 2009 and end their painful run of successive Final defeats. If they don't, I think it would be their biggest ever disappointment and underachievement. There are no simply excuses at all. I think that Belgium and Spain will complete the podium, although Serbia will also be sniffing around the podium as well. Whatever happens, I hope Belgium medal because it is important to me as a women's hoops addict that the team with the most attractive brand of basketball is successful.