Group B preview: Expecting the unexpected with no clear favorite
HRADEC KRALOVE (FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017) – When the action gets underway in Hradec Kralove, you can expect the unexpected when it comes to Group B of FIBA EuroBasket Women 2017.
There are two Olympic teams in the mix, in the shape of Belarus and Turkey – yet both are about to sail into unchartered waters and that makes their prospects less certain than they would normally be.
Turkey had been considered as group favorites, but some largely uninspiring preparation results have questioned their capacity to shine without the legendary and now retired Nevriye Yilmaz. They will look to their vastly experienced and popular backcourt combo of Isil Alben and Birsel Vardarli to carry the torch.
Without Lara Sanders in the paint either, head coach Ekrem Memnun has gone back to Quanitra Hollingsworth in the naturalized spot. While her game is arguably less diverse than that of her rival, she is physically very strong and is coming off the back of a tremendous season at Yakin Dogu Universitesi, where Bahar Caglar also re-injected major life into her career.
The pivotal question is whether younger players like Olcay Cakir, Ayse Cora and Tilbe Senyurek will step up and continue Turkey's rise to significance since 2011 when they made their first Final – ahead of two subsequent Olympic outings.
Belarus burst onto the scene and made their breakthrough exactly a decade ago, with a historic bronze medal. Since then, they've also had two Olympic campaigns, a pair of FIBA Women's World Championship appearances and made the Semi-Finals at FIBA EuroBasket Women 2015.
But, they are without both of their famous 'twin towers' in the form of the legendary Yelena Leuchanka and highly effective Anastaisya Verameyenka. It could therefore be a baptism of fire for new head coach Nataliya Trafimava, although at least she has some prolific offense from the newly naturalized Alex Bentley in the backcourt.
Belarus also have a big threat on the wings from their irrepressible leader Katsiaryna Snytsina, while Tatsiana Likhtarovich was a revelation in Rio. The form of Galatasaray forward Maryia Papova is also reason for encouragement, but there is no denying their lack of a top-quality center.
Meanwhile Italy also have a lack of depth in the frontcourt, but with both Belarus and Turkey missing a cutting edge under the hoop, they will like their chances even more. They had a great run in the Qualifiers and Andrea Capobianco will look to push for a FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup 2018 berth.
They are led by the brilliant veteran duo of Laura Macchi and Raffaella Masciadri – the former having ended a lengthy six-year hiatus from national team duties to shine radiantly in the Qualifiers. At the other end of the spectrum, the versatile and exciting Cecilia Zandalasini will debut at the event and she is at the top of many watch-lists. She remains the future of Italian women's basketball.
Yet the strength of Italy is likely to be the extensive supporting cast, from Giorgia Sottana who can create or score in the guard spots, to Kathrin Ress at center, they have so much experience to call upon and will be rock solid.
As for Slovak Republic, they head into the tournament with their usual underdog label. Having seen Maros Kovacik replaced only a few weeks ago by Czech play-caller Marian Svoboda, they've posted wildly differing results during preparation. While missing Zsofia Hruscakova and Katerina Tetemondova, Coach Svoboda has persuaded the legendary Zuzana Zirkova to return – along with another vastly experienced center in Romana Vynuchalova.
With Reyer Venezia powerhouse Marie Ruzickova and the highly efficient Anna Jurcenkova to call upon, the irony is Slovak Republic possibly have the most extensive frontcourt rotation.
And, if Barbora Balintova can repeat her excellent showing from the guard spot two years ago, Slovak Republic could still be highly dangerous and shouldn't be discounted.