The road to the basketball glory will run through one of the sport's sacred grounds, Lithuania, when EuroBasket 2011 starts on Wednesday, August 31 with 24 teams full of Euroleague and Eurocup talent battling not only to become continental champs, but also to win two places in the 2012 London Olympics or four berths in next summer's pre-Olympics qualifying tournament. EuroBasket 2011's structure was changed from previous editions to add more drama from the very beginning. Teams have been divided into four groups of six, only the best three teams of which will reach the second phase at Siemens Arena in Vilnius. There, two groups of six teams whose first-round results will also be counted, will yield eight survivors to the medal rounds in Kaunas. One-off, do-or-die quarterfinals, semifinals and final games will reveal which national team lifts the trophy and which others can keep fighting for Olympic glory. As usual, the Turkish Airlines Euroleague is the most represented club competition at the event, with over 120 players expected in Lithuania. About 30 of those will be participating in Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds by the end of September. The Eurocup boasts 21 players on EuroBasket 2011 rosters, with 18 others ticketed for the Eurocup Qualifying Round. In addition, a total of nine head coaches from Euroleague and Eurocup teams will be working the sidelines at EuroBasket 2011. With an international audience dominated by the basketball-loving Lithuanians, expect the kind of atmosphere that only European basketball offers to make for a memorable tournament starring the Euroleague and Eurocup's finest.
Defending champion Spain is considered the top candidate to win the competition, as most of its players have been together and very successful for a long time. Five-time All-Euroleague first team guard Juan Carlos Navarro of FC Barcelona Regal and All-Euroleague second-team swingmen Sergio Llull of Real Madrid and Fernando San Emeterio of Caja Laboral are some of the superstars in the squad coached by Sergio Scariolo, the new boss at EA7 - Emporio Armani Milan. But this group's power goes well beyond Spain to include Turkey and host Lithuania, which placed second and third, respectively, at last year's World Championships. Turkey features team leaders Kerem Tunceri of Anadolu Efes and Omer Onan of Fenerbahce Ulker, whose teammate Emir Preldzic will debut his versatility and talent. Lithuania has a solid base of Zalgiris Kaunas players like Mantas Kalnietis and Robertas Javtokas helped by the Lavrinovic twins, Ksistof and Darjus, by four-time Euroleague winner Sarunas Jasikevicius and by veteran bomber Rimas Kaukenas of Montepaschi Siena. Poland, featuring Adam Hrycaniuk of Asseco Prokom, and Great Britain, with Unicaja center Joel Freeland and Luol Deng, will try to overcome the odds to reach Vilnius.
Group B is arguably the one in which anything can happen. Serbia, silver medalists at the last EuroBasket, is the top candidate to survive because stars like former Euroleague MVP Milos Teodosic and Nenad Krstic of CSKA, Kosta Perovic of FC Barcelona Regal, All-Euroleague second team forward Dusko Savanovic of Anadolu Efes and Euroleague runner-up Milan Macvan of Maccabi Electra have been playing together for a while. Italy features two Euroleague Rising Star award winners - Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari - as its main stars. France offers a physical, intense team with Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum of Sluc Nancy and Mickael Gelabale of Belgacom Spirou Basket as its main references. Germany, with Dirk Nowitzki, Tibor Pleiss of Brose Baskets and a solid base of Alba Berlin and Bayern Munich players, will be as dangerous as anyone. Israel will be led by David Blu and Lior Eliyahu of Maccabi Electra and Yotam Halperin of Spartak St. Petersburg. Latvia will try to beat the expectations against tough, competitive squads.
As many as four different national teams from the former Yugoslavia meet in a very exciting Group C. Croatia returns to EuroBasket as solid as it has been recently, with last season's Eurocup Finals MVP Marko Popovic as its new captain. A deep frontcourt featuring Ante Tomic of Real Madrid, Luka Zoric of Unicaja and Stanko Barac of Efes, a new point guard in Eurocup MVP Dontaye Draper, plus well-known scorers Bojan Bogdanovic and Marko Tomas of Fenerbahce Ulker turn Croatia into a top contender. Montenegro is not an average newcomer to EuroBasket, as it features Milko Bjelica of Caja Laboral and Nikola Pekovic of Partizan mt:s Belgrade under the boards, as well as three-time Top 16 assists king Omar Cook at point guard. FYROM, led by Bo McCalebb of Montepaschi and Vlado Ilievski of Efes, and Bosnia, with three-point bombers Henry Domercant of Unics and Mirza Teletovic of Laboral as its main players, will also fight to qualify. Despite several key absences, Greece is another top candidate to go through and fight for an Olympic spot. Antonis Fotsis and former All-Euroleague big man Ioannis Bourousis of EA7 Emporio Armani are the new leaders in Greece, while Nick Calathes of Panathinaikos and Kostas Vasileadis of Bizkaia Bilbao Basket will have bigger roles, too. Finland, which survived the most recent qualifying round, will try to keep its momentum going with early upsets.
Russia and Slovenia are the favourites in Group D, with four other teams battling for the third spot. Russia, the 2007 EuroBasket champion, put together another very competitive team featuring the impressive frontcourt of CSKA Moscow duo Viktor Khryapa and Andrei Vorontsevich, Timofey Mozgov of BC Khimki and Andrei Kirilenko. Head coach David Blatt of Maccabi Electra will try to qualify Russia for its second consecutive Olympic games. Slovenia, with legendary coach Bozidar Maljkovic of Lokomotiv Kuban as its new boss, has former Euroleague champions Erazem Lorbek of Barcelona, Jaka Lakovic of Galatasaray and Matjaz Smodis of Cedevita as its leaders. Ukraine relies on big men Oleksiy Pecherov of Azovmash and Serhiy Lishchuk of Valencia Basket to make the difference in the paint. Belgium, with Axel Hervelle of Bizkaia Bilbao Basket as its leader, has a very good chance to advance. Georgia, led by Zaza Pachulia and Panathinaikos center Giorgi Shermadini, and Bulgaria, with Unicaja playmaker EJ Rowland, are also ready to battle to make it to Vilnius.