Craig Rayner takes a look at the Australian Boomers’ Group D opponents in the lead up to the 2014 FIBA World Cup for men. After Slovenia and Korea, Australia face arch-nemesis Lithuania.
If the Boomers have an international basketball rival aside from the Tall Blacks of New Zealand, it surely is the mighty Lithuania. They are a team Australia will meet yet again on the world stage in what will be each team’s third match in Group D of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
It has been at the hands of Lithuania that Australia have fallen short in bronze medal matches at both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics causing continued heartache in the land down under as the search for an elusive medal in an Olympics or World Cup continues.
Compared to other nations, Australia have met Lithuania regularly in tournament play considering Lithuania only entered competition just over two decades ago. The Lithuanians clearly hold the upper hand with an imposing 5-2 record. The Boomers’ two victories coming in the 1998 World Championships in Greece and recently at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, although it must be considered the most recent contest was somewhat a dead rubber for Lithuania heading into the Quarter Finals stage.
Continually punching above their weight, Lithuania has become somewhat of a European powerhouse, earning a Bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. They have announced a strong squad leading into this year’s World Cup that retains key players from last year’s silver medal winning team that fell to France at 2013 Eurobasket in Slovenia.
Like squads in the past, a key for Lithuania is its depth and a strong bench will need to be called upon in Spain, especially given the recent withdrawals of national team stalwart Robertas Javtokas and Linas Kleiza, the second leading scoring from last year’s silver medal winning unit. Both players have requested to sit out national team action to recover from injuries picked up during the domestic season.
One player who again will carry a big load for Lithuania in Spain, after the seemingly annual speculation of Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius returning was again quashed, is point guard Mantas Kalnietis. Leading the team in scoring and assists last year in Slovenia, Lithuania looked decidedly more dangerous when Kalnietis was firing.
Freelance reporter for FIBA Europe and the Lithuanian Basketball Federation who keeps a close eye on all things Lithuanian hoops is Simonas Baranauskas and he sees Kalnietis as being the difference in this year’s World Cup.
“It would be a big boost for the national team if he (Kalnietis) could replicate last year’s form,” Baranauskas said. “Lithuania’s main strength is the depth of its roster in all positions but one. The point guard is still an issue and that’s why Kalnietis is so crucial to this team”.
A big name in Lithuania’s squad coming off a much improved NBA season with the Toronto Raptors where he averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game is Centre Jonas Valanciunis.
With Javtokas having been the back bone of Lithuania’s defense for close to a decade, he will be a big hole to fill but Baranauskas sees Valanciunis being able to cover his absence even after what many believed to be a sub-par performance at last year’s Eurobasket.
“Valanciunas will have to take on an increased role and finally put on his big boy pants after looking somewhat shaky last year, especially defensively,” he said.
Also looking to provide Valanciunas assistance in the paint will be two familiar faces to the Lithuanian team, twin brothers Ksistof and Darjus Lavrinovic while Houston Rockets big man Donatas Motiejunas has also been named.
While the notable Olympic bronze medal matches have formed the basis for a rivalry, underlining this is Australia’s connection of playing in Lithuania with two current Boomer squad members and a former Boomer all having played for Lietuvos Rytas, a team based in the basketball hotbed and capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius.
Retired Boomer Matt Neilsen played there from 2005 to 2008, while Aron Baynes started his professional career there in 2009 and Brad Newley was a team mate of Valanciunas in Vilnius during the 2010-11 season. Baranauskas sees this history as having strengthened basketball ties between the two nations.
“Although the two countries are literally on the opposite ends of the globe, I think you can definitely call it a rivalry. Having had three well-known Aussies play in Lithuania has established an even deeper connection.”
Looking to at least emulate the 2010 World Championship Bronze Medal they picked up in Turkey and with basketball at the forefront of Lithuanian lifestyle, hype is slowly building in the small Baltic nation as they wait for preparations to things kick into gear in late July when Lithuania starts a slate of 14 world cup preparation matches.
Australian fans should be firmly fixed on August 11th (August 12th Australian time) when Australia and Lithuania get a pre-World Cup look at each other when Lithuania host the Boomers in the coastal city of Klapeida. Lithuania will also gain an early look at fellow Group D opponents Slovenia when they square off in a tournament in Zagreb, Croatia on August 26th.
Australia opens the 2014 FIBA World Cup with a game against Slovenia in Gran Canaria, Spain on August 31 at 1:30am AEST live on ABC2 or online on FIBA’s livebasketball.tv.
Preview of Australia’s Group D Opponents (in order)
Slovenia (Preview) – 31 August 2014, 1:30am AEST
Korea (Preview) – 31 August 2014, 11:30pm AEST
Lithuania – 3 September 2014, 1:30am AEST
Mexico (Preview) – 3 September 2014, 11:30pm AEST
Angola (Preview) – 4 September 2014, 11:30pm AEST