Bar set high for Group D contenders
HELSINKI (FIBA U20 European Championship) – Former U20 European champions Italy, as well as Belgium, the Czech Republic and recently-promoted Sweden make up Group D at the FIBA U20 European Championship which tips off Saturday in Helsinki.
This generation of Italian players aims to reach heights similar to that of the 2013 side which had earned gold in Estonia, Belgium and the Czech Republic need to live up to the expectations that their historic quarter-final finishes in 2015 created, while Sweden want to establish themselves in the top flight once and for all.
Italy are departing this year from recent tradition which saw them field teams with the most possible experience, by compiling a roster which includes five 19-year-olds and one 18-year-old player.
The only returnees from last summer's team are 1996-born all-round guards Ion Lupusor and Diego Flaccadori, who averaged 6.7 points and 2.4 rebounds in the 2015 tournament.
Italy are excited to see the return in the national team jersey of talented point guard Federico Mussini, following his first season in the NCAA. The 19-year-old had dazzled the crowds in his last tournament with the Azzurri two years previously, as he had averaged 22.6 points in the 2014 FIBA U18 European Championship.
Leonardo Tote and big man Luca Severini put in very promising displays in the warm-up games leading up to Helsinki and are poised to carry a big load offensively, possibly together with guard Davide Moretti who was excellent in last summer's U18 event.
The Czech Republic are faced with a demanding challenge in Helsinki as they have to live up to the big success of the 2015 side which reached an historical-best fifth-place finish in the tournament in Italy.
Luckily for the Czechs, the biggest part of that team's backcourt is returning this summer as 1996-born guards Rostislav Dragoun, Filip Kroutil and Viktor Pulpan have all been included on the roster.
Forward Matej Svoboda of CEZ Nymburk already played big minutes last year and is poised to assume a leading role this summer, while the Czech team also expects meaningful contributions from 1997-born power forward Simon Pursl.
Belgium also achieved an historical feat last year, by entering the quarter-finals during their maiden Division A appearance. Three players have been handed the task of instilling in the 2016 side a similar degree of ambition.
Guard Thomas Akyazili was only 18 last year but played a very significant role with his two-way game and is expected to lead the Belgian cause in Helsinki.
Big men Romain Boxus and Justin Kohajda had made solid contributions in the Italy tournament coming off the bench and their experience will be important for Belgium in the frontcourt, where they have almost as much length as they had last year.
A first glance at the Sweden roster will tell you that the trio of 1996-born Denzel Andersson, Erik Johansson and Andreas von Uthmann are the only three members of the Swedish team which clinched promotion to U20 Division A last year that will have the privilege to return this summer and play in the top-flight for the first time in their careers.
In actual fact however, almost the entire Swedish squad that will step out in Helsinki will go through the same experience, as the roster includes the core of the side which accomplished the exact same promotion feat in the FIBA U18 European Championship last summer.
This contingent of 1998-born players is headlined by small forward John Brandmark, who had averaged 14.2 points on 38% three-point shooting in the U18 tournament, while it also includes point guard Henrik Sjolin and forwards Tobias Sjoberg and Samuel Berkelund, who were instrumental in Sweden earning promotion to Division A of the U18 Championship.