It's been two weeks, and the EuroBasket 2013 tournament is about to get serious. Of course, for some pretty good European teams like Russia and Turkey and Greece, it's way past serious, as they've all been eliminated. When you consider that Brazil bombed in the FIBA Americas tournament and China lost in the Asia tournament, the competition for the final four wild card spots for next year's World Cup (it used to be called the World Championships but FIBA changed the name to be more like FIFA) in Spain will be fierce.
The first two rounds of EuroBasket have reduced the field from 24 to 12 to the final eight, and the quarterfinals get under way on Wednesday. The final day of competition included a couple of hard fought games as Croatia beat Greece in double overtime and Italy beat Spain in overtime.
The Spaniards, heavy favorites to win this tournament after dominating it two years ago, barely advanced to the second round. Had Greece been able to overcome Croatia Monday (and they held a three point lead with 30 seconds left in the first overtime) Spain might have finished out of the top four in their group (honestly, I don't really get the FIBA tie breakers, but I think Spain would have gone through anyway). Finishing the group tied for fourth, with the same record as Finland, is not what was expected of this team. And they had to have 32 points from Marc Gasol just to make it to OT against Italy. Clearly not having Pau or Juan Carlos Navarro has made this a less dangerous Spain squad.
Speaking of less dangerous, if the rest of the Western Conference is looking for signs of weakness in the San Antonio Spurs, the play of Tony Parker so far at EuroBasket is a good place to start. It's probably meaningless in the big picture as Parker will no doubt step up for the NBA season, but for a guy who has been unstoppable in international play and indeed in the NBA, Parker has been downright ordinary so far. Les Bleus lost two of their three games in the second round, and Parker scored 10 and 11 points in the two losses. France finished third in their group, good enough to advance, but not really what we were expecting from this NBA-heavy roster.
Poor performances in the early rounds aren't fatal if you can turn it around for the knockout stage. But Spain didn't do themselves any favors finishing fourth in Group F, because now they have to face Serbia, the first place team from Group E, in the quarters. France may have dug any even bigger hole -- as luck would have it, their third place finish in E matched them up with hosts Slovenia, who finished second in F, meaning France will have to play against a pumped up Slovenian team in front of (almost) literally rabid fans.
What's really interesting about EuroBasket is that the most important tangible benefit, qualification for the World Cup, is at this point entirely about NOT LOSING and has very little to do with winning. With seven World Cup spots available for Europe (that's including Spain, who is already in with an automatic bid as hosts), only one of the remaining eight teams will fail to qualify. FIBA plays out all the remaining games -- determining not just the third place team but also the fifth and seventh place teams -- meaning that one team will lose three straight games this week, playing its way right out of the World Cup in the process. The Gold Medal game on Sunday will be interesting of course -- but the real drama will happen in the seventh place game on Saturday, where the winner earns the final slot and the loser misses out on the World Cup. (Unless of course the seven/eight game features Spain, in which case Spain gets the spot and the opponent misses out, regardless of the outcome.)
Is there a favorite heading into the quarterfinals? Well, for lack of a better choice and lackluster second round performances notwithstanding, I'd still have to give the edge to Spain. Serbia, Lithuania and Croatia have all played well, and Slovenia will have a massive home court advantage along with the most incentive to actually win it all, but Spain still has the most talent. And don't count Parker out yet either; the key to stopping France is containing Parker as Serbia and Lithuania did last week, but it's easier said than done. A surprising Italy team and a Ukraine squad featuring L.A. native Pooh Jeter at the point (and pretty much no one else you've ever heard of unless you're a big fan of Viacheslav Kravtsov) round out the field of eight.
Back to those four World Cup wild cards for a moment, it will be interesting to see what FIBA does. Bear in mind that by the time the 2014 wild cards are awarded, Andrew Wiggins of Canada will be an NBA rookie and almost certainly the first overall pick of the 2014 draft, after Anthony Bennett went number one in 2013. Interest in Wiggins could be sky-high, Canada could be pretty damn good, and it's easy to imagine FIBA giving a spot to the Canadians. Brazil is almost a lock for a spot between the fact that Rio is hosting the Olympics in 2016 and the presence of NBA players like Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter on the roster (provided they commit to playing). Assuming that FIBA is not going to ignore the size of the Chinese market, that makes China a lock also. Is it possible that there will be just a single wild card available for Europe?
The EuroBasket tournament starts up again on Wednesday with a pair of quarterfinal games which will be shown live on NBA-TV. The early game, tipping off at 8:30 Pacific, is Spain-Serbia. That will be followed at noon by France-Slovenia. With Champions League soccer games also showing on Wednesday, we've got quite the selection of mid-week, mid-day European sport viewing options.