The Experts' view: Who will take the first steps to FIBA EuroBasket 2021?
MUNICH (FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers) - Our European basketball experts offer an eye over the nine teams prepping to play in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers.
Whilst most attention is on the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Qualifiers, for some teams, the focus is already on FIBA EuroBasket 2021.
Divided into three groups of three, Albania, Armenia, Cyprus, Denmark, Luxembourg, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (MKD), Portugal, Slovak Republic and Switzerland will also be playing during the international windows, as they attempt to take the first steps towards a berth in the next edition of FIBA EuroBasket.
Following home-and-away games against the other two teams in each respective group, the winners of each group advance to the Pre-Qualifiers Second Round, along with the best-placed second-placed team.
Igor Curkovic, Simas Baranauskas and Jared Grellet now break down for us, how they see each of the three groups playing out.
TEAMS: Slovak Republic, MKD and Switzerland
FIRST WINDOW GAMES: Slovak Republic v MKD, Thursday 18:00 CET; MKD v Switzerland, Sunday 20:45 CET
IC: Slovak Republic played some fine basketball during the summer, and now coach Ivan Rudez will have Kyle Kuric at his disposal. Mario Ihring could use the experience to gain some confidence in what has been a dismal season so far for his SikeliArchivi Capo d'Orlando - maybe the Italian club benefits from his minutes on the floor in a Slovakian jersey.
MKD should be group favorites, but that first group game could determine a lot of things in this group. Not sure what to expect from Switzerland at all, they are a team that has defeated Iceland in the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers - but also lost to Belgium by 38 in that same campaign...
SB: Switzerland may find themselves as the odd team out, between the relative big guns of the Slovak Republic and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, who both have good reason to consider themselves front-runners for the only spot in the Second Round.
I would consider the Macedonians the more likely team to advance, as they have slightly more experience in the shape of the Stojanovski brothers, Vojdan and Damjan, as well as Richard Hendrix, who took the naturalized player spot from Jordan Theodore.
With veteran big man Radoslav Rancik no longer in the picture, scoring machine Kyle Kuric stands out as the number one threat for Slovak Republic, but the young duo of Mario Ihring and Michal Fusek will need to step up for them to contend.
JG: Every campaign I get optimistic about Slovak Republic, and that remains this time around. Sure, they only won a game this summer in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers, but I think we can all agree they were in the toughest group, in which their victory came over group winners Sweden.
MKD on the other hand have failed to capture my imagination since the heady days of September 2011 when they rocked Lithuania by knocking the hosts out of FIBA EuroBasket in the Quarter-Finals. Even with Jordan Theodore on board this summer, they underwhelmed, finishing below Estonia and Kosovo.
With this in mind, I am not ruling out Switzerland causing a shock or two and I am making this the 'Group of Death.' Would not be a competition without one, right? They were missing this summer but they return with a similar lineup to their FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers. I'm calling them to win at least twice as many games this time around...so two. That gives them at minimum a .500 record which will definitely have them in a position to advance.
TEAMS: Albania, Armenia, Denmark
FIRST WINDOW GAMES: Albania v Armenia, Thursday, 17:30 CET; Armenia v Denmark, Sunday 19:00 CET
IC: Niksa Bavcevic has done a superb job over the summer, making Armenia perhaps the strongest team that will participate in these Pre-Qualifiers. I would be surprised if they aren't at 2-0 come Sunday night...the energy of their home court is inspirational to some players, and Ryan Boatright's return from injury will go by even faster once he hears Armenian fans roar...
Denmark must use the fact that the Armenians are playing two games in three days (plus the long travel from Albania to Armenia), maybe their freshness will guide them towards the Second Round. This group seems like the one to have the best second-placed team of the competition.
SB: The Ryan Boatright-led Armenia may have been the darlings of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers, but that will not suffice in the FIBA EuroBasket 2021 Pre-Qualifiers.
With the returning core of Boatright, Andrew Chrabascz, Allyn Hess and Lucas Fischer, the Armenian national team will have to assert their dominance and anything short of qualifying would have to be labeled a disappointment.
On the back of solid results in the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers, Denmark should be their closest rivals, with upsets against Germany and Austria standing out as their latest achievements.
JG: You can not underestimate Denmark. Bakken Bears, who provide a solid core of this team are having a superb European campaign, so their players will be arriving in camp on a high. Put in the 'Group of Death' in the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers, they knocked over Austria and Germany. That win against Austria marked the end of their campaign back in 2016. Can you be only as good as your last game, if it was more than a year ago? I am saying yes.
For me, Armenia were easily the talking point of the summer's World Cup Pre-Qualifiers. However, coming that close to qualifying and missing out...that is tough. For the sake of some Boatright puns, I am saying this group will come down to a fight between the Danes and the Armenians. Watch out for this matchup on Sunday.
Albania may look at this tournament as another invaluable chance for international exposure, but I feel that the Pre-Qualifiers First Round is as far as they are going.
TEAMS: Cyprus, Portugal and Luxembourg
FIRST WINDOW GAMES: Cyprus v Portugal, Thursday, 18:00 CET; Portugal v Luxembourg, Sunday, 17:00 CET
IC: Still just 17, Ben Kovac could be one of the most interesting prospects in Europe. At the last FIBA U18 European Championship, Division B he had 25.1 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, so it will be really interesting to see him on this kind of level. But even if he could reproduce those kind of numbers for the senior national team, it is still hard to see Luxembourg advancing...
Portugal must bring their A-game to the table straight away. A win away at Cyprus could see them take charge of the group straight away, but you know how hard it is to climb over that Cyprus hill, right? A nice run in the Pre-Qualifiers could kick-start Portugal's campaign to get back to where they belong - at the summit in 2021. Not that impossible to see Joao Gomes and company go all the way...
SB: As long as their hearts are no longer broken from a painful exit from the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Pre-Qualifiers, I'd see the Mario Gomes-coached Portugal as the favorites in the last three-team bunch, especially with the return of Joao Gomes and Claudio Fonseca.
Having lifted the 2017 Games of Small States of Europe title last summer, Cyprus are a dark-horse contender to make some noise in Group C, with Luxembourg starting out as a distant third option, in my view.
JG: Looking back through history, I had almost forgotten Portugal have played at FIBA EuroBasket twice in the past 10 years. Now, just weeks after celebrating their 90th anniversary, how poignant would it be to see them go there again? I see their biggest challenge to come from Cyprus. Another team with a strong base of players competing well in Europe, namely through FIBA Europe Cup club, Keravnos.
As I said however, you are only as good as your last game, in the case of Luxembourg, that was a win over Great Britain in the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers, perhaps they will have me eating my hat and throw a spanner in the works in Group C.