The Slovenia Times

EuroBasket 2011 - Anything is Possible



The emotions were tumultuously intense and left scarcely anyone untouched. Lifelong friendships were established and bitter conflicts broke out. From the fans' perspective, the 20 years can be roughly divided into two phases: during the first decade, expectations tended to be high but the final results were disappointing, with the team finishing their competition after preliminary rounds. Learning from the disappointments, the fans and the media began to be more cautious, while still secretly hoping for good results.
In Slovenia's case, this meant a medal. Coached by Jure Zdovc, Slovenia came closest in 2009 in Poland when they finished fourth. They were given hero's welcome in the centre of Ljubljana, but a bitter aftertaste nonetheless remained. When it seemed that things have taken an upward trend, this year's pre-championship story is a case of déjà vu. The only difference is that some solid foundations for the future have been laid.
First, Zdovc resigned soon after the 2009 championship. He has been replaced by Božidar Maljković, 59, a highly respected Serbian coach who has won three Euroleague titles. However, this fact did not prevent another unpopular trend from the past - cancellations by some of the best players. Beno Udrih, a member of the NBA team Milwaukee Bucks, got married and wanted to spend time with his wife. For Saša Vujačić (New Jersey Nets), this was just another in a string of cancellations. Gašper Vidmar, Primož Brezec and Boštjan Nachbar were forced to miss the championships due to injuries. For a while, it seemed that Erazem Lorbek would also be missing. The situation turned into a comedy of errors after Lorbek had first announced that it was up to his team in Barcelona whether he would play or not. After Barcelona had denied this, and after some behind-the-scene manoeuvres, Lorbek finally agreed to join the team. Rašo Nesterović, 35, still plays professional basketball but decided against playing for the national team some while ago. Instead, he might play an advisory role as a member of the support team.
Maljković did not find a place for Sani Bečirović, a regular national team member, on his team. Instead, he deliberately opted for fresh blood and invited six young players to the training camp. Two of them (Luka Rupnik and Edo Murič) will be part of the team in Lithuania. The only NBA player is now Goran Dragić (Houston Rockets). More good news is that Matjaž Smodiš seems to be ready after a number of injuries had prevented him from contributing his share to the efforts of the national team.
All in all, the team is still optimistic about the championship, hoping for the semi-finals. With most other teams coming with their strongest line-ups, this will be one of the strongest championships in history and Slovenia has a steep mountain to climb. Maljković is more cautions and says: "Others are driving a Mercedes, we only have a Golf."
In the preliminary rounds Slovenia will play Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine and Belgium. In order to qualify for the next round, they should finish in the top three. It shouldn't be too ambitious to expect a walkover, but history has proved that nothing should be taken for granted when Slovenia is concerned. In the second round (beginning on September 7), Slovenia would likely play against Greece, Croatia and another team from the area of former Yugoslavia (Montenegro, Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina).
On paper, the draw has played into Slovenian hands, as the teams like Spain, Lithuania, Turkey, Israel, France and Serbia can be met only in the quarter finals. At both recent championships (2007 and 2009), Slovenia would start the tournament with a string of easy wins but their performance would drop later on in the tournament. With 24 participating teams, this year's championship is even longer, which is one of Maljković's concerns. He is also aware of the lack of tall players, but he will try to compensate for this with speed and agility.
For a change, the championship in Lithuania will not be only about medals. The first two teams will qualify directly for the Olympic Games next year and four other teams will qualify for the Olympic qualifying tournament.

Maljković's 12

Mirza Begić, Age: 26; most recent team: Real Madrid

  • He is one of the tallest players in European basketball and also a fantastic rebounder, which is hardly surprising, but a real bonus is just how energetic and mobile he is for a big man, which creates problems for most of his defensive match-ups.

Goran Dragić, 25, Houston Rockets

  • Goran has matured in recent years through competing in the NBA and playing alongside one of the best point guards in the world, Steve Nash. Consequently, he will definitely be one of the players to watch in Lithuania.

Zoran Dragić, 22, Krka

  • He was the last player to be cut from the squad last year in preparation for the World Championship. This summer, he will be hoping to make an impact following a solid year playing in the Slovenian league, where he averaged 15 points.

Goran Jagodnik, 37, Union Olimpija

  • A national team player for almost 15 years, Goran Jagodnik is by far the most senior member on the Slovenia roster and could well be the oldest player at the championship. He prides himself on his shooting, and is most comfortable when shooting from the corner or near the baseline.

Jaka Lakovič, 33, Barcelona

  • As one of Slovenia's most experienced players, the role of Jaka Lakovič is to teach the new era of young Slovenian players what it takes to win. On his best day, he can rain down triples with ease, if the defence dares to leave him open.

Erazem Lorbek, 27, Barcelona

  • Probably the best individual Slovenian player, Lorbek returns to the national team looking to repeat his efforts at EuroBasket 2009 in Poland when his performances earned him a place in the all-tournament team. Maljković is expected to start Lorbek as one of his most influential players.

Edo Murić, 19, Krka

  • The young and inexperienced Murić will join the national team for the very first time at a major tournament. He is still learning with every game and the championship in Lithuania will be another step on his learning curve.

Sašo Ožbolt, 30, Union Olimpija

  • Ožbolt is coming off one of his best seasons in his career, and heads into the championship full of confidence. He has already been part of the Slovenian team after appearing at the 2006 World Championship in Japan and so he knows all about competing at this level.

Luka Rupnik, 18, Geoplin Slovan

  • Božidar Maljković has called Luka Rupnik into the squad after the young player impressed him at the U18 European Championship in Poland this summer, where he averaged 17.3 points per game.

Uroš Slokar, 28, Manresa

  • After a stint in the NBA, Slokar returned to Europe, but never really excelled. However, he was given the chance to shine at EuroBasket 2009 where he proved the doubters wrong with some solid performances. He has the potential to become one of the best centres in Slovenian basketball.

Matjaž Smodiš, 31, CSKA

  • Smodiš is another of Slovenia's veteran stars, who has tasted success with CSKA Moscow in both the Russian league and in Euroleague. If fit, he will provide great experience, intensity and of course has the winning mentality required at the top level to be a game changer.

Samo Udrih, 32, Union Olimpija

  • As one of more travelled Slovenian players on the roster, Samo Udrih brings valuable experience and guidance to the younger generation on the team. He is a big three-point shooter, and relies heavily on this element of his game. He has a cool head and rarely loses his composure.

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