Experts: What to look out for in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers?
MUNICH (Germany) - It's that time again as our panel of experts give their views ahead of the start of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 European Qualifiers.
We've put some questions to FIBA writers Igor Curkovic, Bradley Gains and Jeff Taylor as they look at the first window and make some bold - and not so bold - predictions.
Which team is most likely to go undefeated throughout the European Qualifiers, start to finish?
Igor Curkovic: France. They are strong favorites in their group with Portugal, Hungary and Montenegro - not to underestimate those three teams, but we're talking about a French squad here which finished third in the last FIBA Basketball World Cup, and played the Final of the Olympic Games over the summer. The best part about it, it seems that they are getting deeper and deeper as a team, they've got the right balance between experience and upcoming rising stars. By the time the European Qualifiers finish in February 2023, we could see a bunch of new guys in leading roles. It's not going to stop there. New-look France will be around for a long, long time.
Bradley Gains: France. There are some really open groups and we will likely see a few more upsets, particularly in this First Round. But, I think France are probably least likely to be in that danger zone. Their strength in depth is amazing and should be more than enough to comfortably see them through this first phase with six wins from six a strong possibility.
Jeff Taylor: Serbia. There's nothing more dangerous than a Serbia national team that's come up short of its aims so with that in mind - Serbia's failure to win at home when they hosted this past summer's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade - expect coach Svetislav Pesic to have the team ready, no matter which players show up.
Among teams that didn't qualify for the last World Cup, who is the most likely to book a spot for 2023?
IC: Slovenia. We used to think they were just a Goran Dragic team, then just a Luka Doncic team, but the Olympics showed that Junaki have a lot of team-first players who can safely carry the team towards qualification for big events. And then, they can return to being just a Doncic team in the eyes of the doubters. I'm not doubting them anymore, no matter which competition we're talking about.
BG: Slovenia. Yep. 'Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me' - Slovenia will be ready for these Qualifiers and they will surely find themselves playing at a World Cup again after missing out in 2019. They made the world take notice in the summer and they are the ultimate definition of a team with their togetherness. Luka Doncic is the heartbeat, of course, but the talent goes much deeper and their returning Olympic core will lead the way.
JT: Slovenia. It would be great to see Luka Doncic play in some of the windows because he's one of the top five players in the world in my opinion, but his presence in the team this year should have infected his teammates with a winning spirit and confidence that will get them through qualifying. I also loved how Aleksander Sekulic coached the team at the OQT in Lithuania, and in Tokyo.
Who will be the 'biggest' team to miss out on qualification?
IC: Poland could be in trouble. I'm a big Igor Milicic fan, I wish him all the best, but coaching changes with national teams are much harder during the season instead of over the summer. He'll only have a couple of days with his team, that's nothing compared to having a whole training camp together, like in the past. The schedule to start their campaign is horrible, on the road in Tel Aviv and at home against Germany...
BG: Again, I think there are some really open groups and looking further down the line at the potential crossovers for the Second Round makes for potentially fascinating battles to advance. I look at someone like Russia, perhaps, who could find themselves in trouble if they don't start well having been drawn alongside Italy again after two defeats in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers. With Spain and Georgia - who could be a surprise pick - potentially looming in the Second Round, it won't be a straightforward route for the Russians.
JT: I worry for both Germany and Poland because each appeared to have a good, winning vibe with Henrik Rodl and Mike Taylor, respectively, as coaches, but elected to make changes. I'll say Germany. It just strikes me as a bad karma move to part with Rodl, whose team made it look relatively easy in the European Qualifiers for the last World Cup, with eight consecutive wins to start off. And then the team truly came together at the OQT in Split and won to reach the Olympics for the first time since Beijing.
Which player is your number one break-out candidate for the Qualifiers?
IC: Does Ismael Bako count? He was selected to the team of the season in the Basketball Champions League in 2019, but had two seasons in France which weren't all that Ismael Bako-ish. The move to BAXI Manresa has been awesome for him, he's back and looking better than ever, and it's so nice to see a smile on his face all the time while he's playing. He's only 26, so yeah, ten or so years of basketball in front of him.
BG: This has become one of the key themes of the Qualifiers: Who is going to raise their hand and step up for their national team? This could be Yam Madar's time to really make his mark on the national team for Israel. We saw it with Deni Avdija in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers prior to being drafted, and Madar still contributed 7.3 points in 14.7 minutes per game in that campaign. This could be the platform to really elevate his production in the backcourt
JT: I suppose Italy's Alessandro Pajola is still young enough - he just turned 22 - to qualify for this. He was a lockdown defender for Italy at the OQT in Belgrade and surely is ready for more minutes, judging from his season with Virtus Bologna so far under Sergio Scariolo, the man that led Spain to the last world title.
Who is a team you know won't make it, but you wish they would?
IC: Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although, I'm not sure they are out of the hunt, at all. Especially not with Dzanan Musa back in Europe and available to help, with athletic guys like Amar Alibegovic, Edin Atic, Kenan Kamenjas, Emir Sulejmanovic, Amar Gegic, Miralem Halilovic... Are they really an outsider? You better believe coach Vedran Bosnic will have his guys believe they are the favorites to advance in a two-group pool of teams such as France, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Hungary and Montenegro.
BG: I have to say Great Britain, here, right? That's also a slightly backhanded selection, but the realistic outlook is that it's going to be a big ask. That's not to say there is no hope as Great Britain enjoyed wins over both France and Germany as well as crucial double over Montenegro to book their spot at FIBA EuroBasket 2022. The likes of Ovie Soko and Myles Hesson - both currently playing in Japan - and Gabe Olaseni have become consistently key performers and GB will fancy their chances of making some noise, particularly at home.
JT: I'd love to see Belgium make it but it's going to be very tough since they are in Group A with Serbia and then cross over and face like Second Round opponents Greece and Turkey. But you never know...