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Which European nations are the biggest climbers over the past two years?
NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) - There have been some relatively dramatic shifts in fortune for some European nations in the past couple of years in respect of the FIBA Women's EuroBasket Qualifiers.
I have been crunching some of the numbers and used the ranking from the FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2019 Qualifiers and Final Round, against the recently completed FIBA Women's EuroBasket 2021 Qualifiers.
Of course, it is only one measure and there are flaws. Much hinged on the draw that nations were handed. It also hinged on how respective national teams dealt with the bubbles. In short, there were many factors.
But, when all said and done, there is a rank for 2019 and now a rank for 2021 (excluding hosts Spain and France, of course) which gives an insight into who has been the biggest climbers. Here's what I found.
Ranked 20th in 2019 when they missed out on the Final Round (having also been absent in 2017) they posted a convincing qualification campaign this time around. Stipe Bralic, the man who oversaw their only Olympic appearance at London 2012, masterminded a double over Germany and tied games with Latvia to progress as Group winners. They also did it with some big name absences along the way. Getting Marija Rezan back for the last window was vital and with Ivana Dojkic, Ana-Marija Begic and Iva Slonjsak, they have a good core that could prove problematic for their Group opponents this summer. Croatian basketball is definitely on the rise, not only as their huge leap to a ranking of 8th would testify, but they also have massive talent emerging like UConn's Nika Muhl for example.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
They only just missed out on a first Final Round appearance since 1999 during the 2019 qualifiers when they were ranked 18th. Now they are ranked 12th and looking forward to finally ending their long standing absence from the main event. It was nice to see Melisa Brcaninovic so influential in the past window and especially when the amazing Marica Gajic was injured. I suppose cynics will dismiss their 'progress' as being down to naturalizing a stellar talent in Jonquel Jones, then when she got injured, being able to instantly replace her with Courtney Hurt.
This is a little more nuanced in terms of the degree of progress, since Slovenia were ranked a creditable 10th at the last Final Round. But having posted an unbeaten qualifying campaign recently and with their core rotation getting stronger and stronger, these are exciting times. Their new rank of 3 effectively translates into 5 when Spain and France are taken into account, so they are recognized as a top five team in Europe. I think that could be about right. Eva Lisec is a colossus in the paint, Shante Evans is always efficient and does a great job, while Teja Oblak, Nika Baric, Zala Friskovec and Annamaria Prezelj is one of the best guard rotations out there. Should they now be eying up a podium finish? Perhaps. Maybe only a lack of frontcourt depth is limiting them, but the rise skywards is undeniable.
Missing out on the Final Round two years ago when ranked 19th, it was a successful mission this time as Slovakia topped their group and moved up to 9th in the rankings. That is rich rewards for showing how pragmatism, organisation, heart and most importantly teamwork can overcome a lack of depth and star names. Even when EuroLeague Women performer and playmaker Barbora Balintova was not at her best, they still managed to get the job done, with multiple and gutsy contributions right down the roster. Sabina Oroszova and Angelika Slamova were two of those to step up.
Bear with me on this, because if your eyebrow is raised, I get it. Netherlands missed out on the Final Round. Yet despite falling short, when you compare previous campaigns, they took a massive stride forward to get within a victory of a long overdue return. On another day they might have finished the job. They were ranked 26th in 2019 and have at least entered the top 20 now and should be able to continue moving in a positive direction with players like Emese Hof and Laura Cornelius staying involved.
Ranked 35th last time and now 25th, the jump is due to that famous win against Romania. It wasn't just the victory, it was the comprehensive 17-point margin and the fact that it underlined how Denmark deserve to be punching at this level. They have some nice young players such as Alberte Rimdal and more coming through the pipeline, which will offer more support to leaders like Maria Jespersen and Gritt Ryder.
The biggest fallers
If you look at the statistical rankings only, then Great Britain and Hungary have been the biggest fallers taking into account the former made a historic run to the 2019 Semi-Finals and the latter made the Quarter-Finals. But if you look at the context, it does cushion any major worries Great Britain could not have shot the ball any worse against Belarus in a game where a win would have seen them punch a ticker. Meanwhile Hungary were literally one basket from topping their group and that showed the margins between failure and success are sometimes incredibly thin. It also showed the depth of competition and the pool of those capable of advancing is perhaps deepening.
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