After 10 years during which they won more medals in elite international competition than any other basketball pros, Turkish Airlines Euroleague Basketball players head into the 2010 FIBA World Championships this week with plans to add to their legacy. That sentiment is particularly strong for defending world champion Spain, for whom seven players from the 2006 team that won it all are back to try to double their gold count in Turkey. Juan Carlos Navarro of Regal FC Barcelona and Real Madrid teammates Jorge Garbajosa and Felipe Reyes, the pillars of Spain's final victory in Japan four years ago, will lead the way again. The team that Spain beat for the 2006 title, Greece, will have as many as seven players from that final back in attempts to reach one step higher. Altogether, players with recent Euroleague experience will be present by the dozens on rosters from all five continents at the 2010 World Championships. The action starts in four Turkish cities on Saturday, August 28 and continues until a champion is crowned in Istanbul on Sunday, September 12. The first challenge for all 24 teams will be to survive their six-team preliminary groups and reach the knockout rounds.
Group A: Angola
The top team in FIBA's ranking system for the previous eight years, Argentina, heads a group that includes perennial Oceania powerhouse Australia and European runner-up Serbia. Argentina boasts former All-Euroleague selections Pablo Prigioni of Real Madrid and Louis Scola. The experience of Scola, Carlos Delfino, Fabricio Oberto and other 2004 Olympic champions make Argentina one of the tournament favorites, although its team depth - especially at point guard - is a question mark against strong teams. The same might be said of Australia, which finished seventh at the 2008 Olympics with a very similar roster, including former Euroleague champ and All-Euroleague selection David Andersen and new Olympiacos signee Matt Nielsen. The late addition of All-Euroleague center Aleks Maric, recently signed by Panathinaikos, makes Australia even more intriguing if the team can find its rhythm in time for the eighthfinals. Led by Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic of Olympiacos, Serbia has a combination of youth and Euroleague experience that makes it a dangerous medal contender. The question for Serbia is who among its many talents - including Teodosic, Milenko Tepic of Panathinaikos, Novica Velickovic of Real Madrid and Aleksandar Rasic of Partizan - will step up to lead his generation forward on this international stage. Germany, despite having been third in the world as recently as 2002, must fight to survive for the last ticket out of this group. With Jan-Hendrick Jagla of Asseco Prokom Gdynia leading a young roster, the Germans will pit their team play against Angola and Lebanon, two countries whose tournament will be a success if they can enter by surprise in the eighthfinals.
Group B: Brazil
, United States
Despite not having any of the players who won the Olympics title just two years ago, the United States arrives as the favorite not only to win this group but to challenge for the gold medal. A new generation of stars led by Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Rudy Gay supplies the U.S. with more than enough talent, while veterans Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom are on standby as leaders. The question is whether a near-complete lack of international playing experience will cause an otherwise compelling team slip when it can least afford to do so - in the knockout stages. Brazil, Croatia and Slovenia will try to upset the U.S. in this group. Another collection of diverse talents makes Croatia, sixth in the last Olympics, a team to watch again. Young talent Ante Tomic of Real Madrid will have plenty eyes on him, which means that veteran perimeter stars like Roko Ukic of Fenerbahce Ulker, Zoran Planinic of Khimki Moscow Region and Marko Popovic of Unics Kazan can be even more dangerous. That's not to forget shooter Marko Tomas of Fenerbahce, scoring big Kresimir Loncar of BC Khimki or other, younger threats on the Croatian roster. If they play defense, the Croatians can challenge anyone. Brazilia features former Euroleague star Tiago Splitter in a talented first five that includes Marcelinho Huertas of Caja Laboral, former Euroleague champion Anderson Varejao and super-swift Leandrinho Barbosa. Depth will be Brazil's biggest challenge, especially after big man Nene Hilario was injured late in the preparation stage. Slovenia brings veteran savvy like few other teams. Euroleague champions Jaka Lakovic of Regal FC Barcelona and Sani Becirovic of Armani Jeans Milano will call the shots along with Goran Dragic, while veteran bigs like Bostjan Nachbar of Efes Pilsen and Uros Slokar of Montepaschi Siena take charge inside. Controlled, tough basketball will be Slovenia's ticket out of this group if it can avoid being surprised by the likes of Iran and Tunisia.
Group C: China
, Ivory Coast
, Puerto Rico
The presence of host Turkey and neighboring Greece, currently FIBA's fourth-ranked team in the world, makes this a group very much up for grabs from the start. Greece begins as a slight favorite thanks to its bronze in last year's European championships and silver in the last worlds. Greece will look for leadership to stars like Dimitris Diamantidis of Panathinaikos and Vassilis Spanoulis of Olympiacos, both former Euroleague champs and All-Euroleague selections. The roster goes deep with Georgios Printezis of Unicaja, Sofoklis Schortsanitis of Maccabi Electra, Nikos Zisis of Montepaschi and the Panathinaikos sextet of Nick Calathes, Antonis Fotsis, Kostas Kaimakoglou, Stratos Perperoglou, Kostas Tsartsaris and Ian Vougioukas all ready to contribute serious minutes. Turkey counters with a combination of talent, experience and promise. Do-it-all forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Hedo Turkoglu will pace Turkey while veteran point guards Ender Arslan and Kerem Tunceri of Efes Pilsen try to lift big men like Oguz Savaz of Fenerbahce, Kerem Gonlum of Efes and Semih Erden to new heights before the home fans. Balance will be key for the Turks. The 2007 European champions from Russia will challenge for the top spots in this group. All-Euroleague ace Viktor Khryapa sets the tone again for his young CSKA Moscow frontcourt teammates, Sasha Kaun and Andrei Vorontsevich, not to mention small forwards Nikita Kurbanov and veteran Sergei Monya. The backcourt is key, however, with Sergei Bykov schooling high-potential playmakers like Alexei Shved and Dmitry Khvostov while emerging vets Vitaly Fridzon of BC Khimki and Anton Ponkrashov maintain their solid contributions. China brings a young team with nothing to lose and Puerto Rico size and talent dangerous enough to challenge almost any team in the group on a good day, while Ivory Coast will try to make its presence felt despite low expectations.
Group D: Canada
, New Zealand
As defending champions and the world's third-ranked team in terms of consistent success, Spain starts as the team to beat in this group and a super-serious medals challenger. With most of its roster having tasted gold at the 2006 World Championships or silver at the 2008 Olympics, this team is battle-tested as well as multi-talented. The absence of Pau Gasol hurts, yes, but Spain won the 2006 final without him and the core of that true team effort remains intact, led by Euroleague champ Juan Carlos Navarro, who can put his stamp in Turkey on one of the best international basketball careers in history. His backcourt mates, Ricky Rubio of Regal FC Barcelona, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Manuel Calderon, make the Spain perimeter as formidable as any. Inside, big Marc Gasol will be flanked by Real Madrid veterans Jorge Garbajosa and Felipe Reyes, not to mention by another reigning Euroleague champ, Fran Vazquez. Small forward, to be shared by Victor Claver of Power Electronics Valencia and Fernando San Emeterio of Caja Laboral, will be another key if Spain is to reach another title game. Lithuania remains dangerous despite a generational shift that has left All-Euroleague selection Linas Kleiza and veteran big man Robertas Javtokas of Power Electronics Valencia as team leaders. A middle core of forwards Jonas Maciulis of Armani Jeans Milano, Paulius Jankunas of Zalgiris and Simas Jasaitis offer some guarantees. The question of whether they will be joined by young would-be protagonists like guards Mantas Kalnietis of Zalgiris and Martynas Gecevicius of Lietuvos Rytas will be key for the Lithuania. After fifth-place finishes in the last European and world tournaments, France is once again a threat, although absences like that of Tony Parker make it less so. Power Electronics Valencia teammates Nando De Colo and Florent Pietrus and Lottomatica Roma signee Ali Traore will join all-around forwards Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw in trying to lead a mixed group to higher ground. As proven by its fourth-place finish in the 2002 worlds and Oceania victory over Australia last summer, New Zealand plays for keeps and will follow shooter Kirk Penney and veteran Pero Cameron as far as possible this time. That means going head-to-head with a Canada team still forming a personality around young Andy Rautins and big Joel Anthony, and not getting surprised by Lebanon and its superscorer, Fadi El Khatib.