Craig Rayner takes a look at the Australian Boomers’ Group D opponents in the lead up to the 2014 FIBA World Cup for men. He starts with Slovenia.
The general theme for the Australian Boomers in previous World Championships and Olympics past has been slow starts to tournaments and then clawing back to respectable but mostly underachieving finishes. Thus once this year’s FIBA Basketball World Cup schedule was released, many eyes were firmly fixed on who the Boomers would meet first – Slovenia.
Starting the World Cup against Slovenia could be viewed in two ways. Good to get one of the stronger teams in Group D out of the way early or bad considering déjà vu could set in and the Boomers find themselves scrambling to avoid finishing in 4th spot and a more than likely next round knockout appearance against Team USA.
Not only for this reason will the Boomers be ensuring they are ready come the opening match, but it was also at the hands of Slovenia where they met their fate in the 2010 World Championships. In Turkey, by way of a 87-58 loss in the Eighth Finals round, Australia ultimately finished in 8th place overall.
Last month Slovenia named 12 of what will be a 17-man squad in preparation for Spain 2014, and it was the news of who wasn’t in the team that made bigger headlines than who was. Long-time national team servants Bostjan Nachbar, who recently won the Spanish ACB title with FC Barcelona, and Jaka Lakovic, most recently of Sidigas Avellino in Italy, announced their retirements from the national team, both happy to have played their swansong in last year’s Eurobasket that was staged in their homeland.
Slovenia managed a 5th place finish in the tournament, succumbing to a red hot and eventual champion France. This was Slovenia’s 2nd best ever finish in a tournament behind finishing 4th at Eurobasket 2009 in Poland.
Slovenia could be considered Europe’s current over achievers, having consistently managed top ten finishes in major tournaments for the past decade. This is a fantastic result for a country of just two million people that is still relatively young after emerging out of the breakup of the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. Although their 7-8 record from their two previous World Championship appearances in 2006 and 2010 is modest in comparison.
While a couple of legends in Lakovic and Nachbar will cheer from the sidelines, a somewhat new age is being ushered in. They will be led admirably by Eurobasket 2013 All-Tournament Team member and Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic who has committed to competing this year in Spain. His brother Zoran, a rising star of Unicaja Malaga in Spain and gathering his own NBA interest this off season, should also suit up following recent surgery to repair a hernia.
The flavour of brotherhood doesn’t end there either, with Lorbek brothers Erazem and Domen also named to the squad. Erazem Lorbek’s inclusion is a major boost for the squad after the FC Barcelona big man has finally returned to health after an injury plagued couple of seasons and subsequently missing last year’s Eurobasket.
In speaking with The Pick and Roll, @Yugobasket, supplier of basketball news on Twitter from the countries of the former Yugoslavia, stated that Erazem Lorbek’s health will be the key to Slovenia’s chances in Spain;
“The Quarter Finals may be the limit of this team with a lot depending on the health of Erazem who often hasn’t been healthy in previous years. But, he was excellent the last time (Coach Jure) Zdovc was in charge of the national team.”
Coach Jure Zdovc returns to the sidelines for Slovenia after guiding them to their 4th placed finish at Eurobasket 2009 where Erazem Lorbek starred and takes over from Serbian Bozidar Maljkovic. @Yugobasket says Zdovc has been welcomed back to the fold with open arms;
“(Zdovc) is still the head coach that achieved the best result ever in the history of the Slovenian national team. People are also glad to see a Slovenian at the helm of the national team after Maljković was in charge in previous years.”
While public perception of the coach remains positive, @Yugobasket explained that general hype around the national team isn’t comparable to last year when leading into their own staging of Eurobasket, further outlining that poor results from Slovenian teams Krka and Union Olimpija in this year’s Adriatic League could also be to blame.
A good news story to come out of the naming of the Slovenian squad is the inclusion of Miha Zupan, who returns to the national team after last competing in the 2010 World Championships. Zupan has been deaf since birth and continues to enjoy a solid professional career in Europe, most recently playing in Turkey.
Zupan will have plenty of opportunity to impress as in comparison to the teams, Slovenia has a huge slate of practice matches leading into their opening encounter against the Boomers. Coach Zdovc recently explained to FIBA.com;
“We have 14 preparatory games ahead of us, which is good for the young guys who have to play a lot and also for me to be able to evaluate which of them are the right ones for the 2014 (FIBA Basketball) World Cup.”
Slovenia’s final practice match will be its most anticipated where they take on the might of Team USA on August 26th in Gran Canaria, where all of Group D’s matches will be played.
Australia can expect a similar Slovenia that played at last year’s Eurobasket where play was mostly aggressive and ran through Goran Dragic, something Coach Zdovc, speaking recently to the Slovenia Times elaborated on;
“This team is young. We will try with agile bigs, who can also score from the distance. We have a few players who can play both the ‘four’ and ‘five’ position.”
There will be a core group of Boomers who were on the end of the 2010 drubbing in Turkey who could make the Boomers final 12 for Spain (see video below). They will be surely be out for retribution come opening night. Notably, San Antonio Spurs Championship winning Centre Aron Baynes who was a team mate of Slovenian squad member Jaka Blazic at Union Olimpija in 2012-13, while both Joe Ingles and Nathan Jawai were team mates of Erazem Lorbek at FC Barcelona that same season.
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 – 31 August 2014, 1:30am AEST
Korea (Preview) – 31 August 2014, 11:30pm AEST
Lithuania (Preview) – 3 September 2014, 1:30am AEST
Mexico (Preview) – 3 September 2014, 11:30pm AEST
Angola (Preview) – 4 September 2014, 11:30pm AEST