16 - 24
July 2016
6 Vanja MARINKOVIC (Serbia)
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Reigning champions Serbia face ambitious competition in Group C

HELSINKI (FIBA U20 European Championship) – Serbia, the reigning champions of the FIBA U20 European Championship, will commence their title defence in the tournament in Helsinki by going up in Group C against Latvia, Ukraine and Slovenia, three teams that aim to finish higher than they did in last year's edition.

Even as they were lifting the trophy in Italy's Lignano Sabbiadoro a year ago, Serbia were aware that not a single member of the gold-medal winning team would return in 2016, as they were all born in 1995.

Of course this being Serbia, the obligatory generational change does not mean they have to renounce their medal aspirations. On the contrary, the Balkan country is once again among the favourites to step on the podium.

The Serbian side that will step out in Helsinki is based almost exclusively on the team that played at the FIBA U19 World Championship of 2015. Forwards Vanja Marinkovic and Vasilije Vucetic, who led Serbia in scoring in that competition headline this year's U20 squad.

Another resourceful forward, Stefan Lazarevic, provides more scoring punch on the wing while Slobodan Jovanovic, Ilija Dokovic and Stefan Peno comprise a compact back-court line-up. Serbia however will have to make do in this tournament without charismatic 1998-born forward/center Borisa Simanic.

Latvia had four 1996-born players on the team which captured fifth place in the 2015 tournament in Italy but, for a variety of reasons, they will have only two of them returning this summer.

Shooting guard Rihards Lomazs put in a string of excellent performances last year, averaging 9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game and is poised to take over a leading role in Helsinki. The other returnee is forward Rudolfs Stradnieks, arguably the best rebounder on this team.

Highly-promising forward Verners Kohs of Spanish side CAI Zaragoza, who led Latvia in scoring at the 2015 FIBA U18 European Championship, could make a significant contribution. The Baltic side have also included two more influential 1997-born players in forward Zigmars Raimo and guard Dzeiks Krumins, who plays for Gran Canaria's youth team.

Ukraine seem to have at their disposal the best of both worlds in this tournament. On the one hand, four 1996-born players who stepped out in last year's edition are returning this year and will help with their experience.

Sharp-shooting guard Oleksandr Kobets, who averaged 8.6 points last summer, headlines this quartet. Forwards Sergii Pryimak and Yevgen Balaban meanwhile combined for 10.2 points and 7.3 rebounds per game in 2015 and they have both improved by leaps and bounds in the year that has elapsed.

Ukraine of course expect to receive a big boost from the addition of 19-year-old rising star Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who returns to the national team for the first time since he stepped out at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, at the age of 17.

Besides the University of Kansas point guard, another 1997-born player who could make a significant contribution is power forward Serhii Pavlov, who had led Ukraine in scoring during the 2015 FIBA U18 European Championship.

Slovenia are a particular case because the highly-talented Blaz Mesicek, who was arguably their most influential player in the 2015 tournament, is still only 19 years old but the shooting guard will not play in Helsinki because he is about to join the senior national team in preparations for the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 Qualifiers.

Nonetheless, the Slovenian side will be one of the youngest in this year's FIBA U20 European Championship as it includes seven players born in 1997 as well as the 1998-born Gaber Ozegovic.

Guard Zan Mark Sisko of Cibona Zagreb together with wingers Vlatko Cancar of Mega Leks and Nejc Zupan of Portoroz make up a formidable trio who are poised to lead Slovenia in the Helsinki tournament. Cancar led Slovenia in scoring and rebounds and Sisko did likewise in assists to help their team earn promotion in last summer's FIBA U18 European Championship Division B.