Both were EuroLeague champions with their respective clubs. Both are main assets in their clubs and national teams and both are European basketball superstars. I am talking about Real Madrid and Spain point guard Sergio Llull and Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Italy forward Luigi Datome. They each arrived in China for the Basketball World Cup full of ambition and eager to do something important with their respective national teams. However, while Llull still can see his dream come true, Datome and Italy will have to settle for ninth place.
"We are happy, we have fulfilled all our plans up to this point." Llull said of Spain's 5-0 start to the competition. "Our first goal was to get through the group phases and if possible, we wanted to be group champion. Mission accomplished."
In what was expected to be Spain's toughest game at this stage of the event, Llull and co. made quick work of previously undefeated Serbia on Sunday. "We played well, I don't know how else to explain it," Llull said. "I think that our defense was the key. They were averaging over 100 points and we kept them at 69. Our experience also helped. We have many games of all kinds under our belts. We know how to play under pressure.
"Poland is a surprise," Llull added when looking ahead to his team's first sudden-death game of the tourney. "But they earned their berth in the quarterfinals and they have lots of quality. Winning this game is our next goal because, after that, there's the battle for medals. For now, we are on the right track."
When we spoke for the first time in Foshan, Luigi Datome was optimistic about Italy's chances in this World Cup. Our next meeting in Wuhan after his team's loss to Spain was not so pleasant for the Fenerbahce star.
"It's a shame, we missed a great opportunity," Datome said. "Spain is still a very strong team, but they are not the Spain that won three EuroBasket golds, they are a team that could have been beaten. Too bad that we did not play so well in the last four minutes when we led by 4 points. Our offense got stuck, we made some mistakes and that cost us the game. I take responsibility for some of those mistakes we made in the crucial moments of the game...
"We led by 10 in the first quarter, but they were back in the game at the end of that same quarter. We had our chance at 56-52 and four minutes to go, but our offense could not complete our good defense. I repeat, we are disappointed. Against Serbia we did not have any real chance, they were better than us, but the Spain game slipped through our fingers. They earned the win, but I think we helped them with our mistakes."
Even though Datome's focus was solely on his Italian national team, he knows the start of the EuroLeague season is right around the corner. "The EuroLeague will be, as always, tough but interesting," he said. "There will be two more teams, more games, more passion... Many teams changed their rosters and will have to adapt and gel."
The surprises: Poland and the Czech Republic
Of the 12 European teams that made the World Cup in China, nine advanced it to the second phase: Spain, Serbia, Italy, France, Greece, Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Russia. Poland and the Czech Republic surprised many by reaching the quarterfinals, especially considering that the Czechs are playing without their biggest star, EuroLeague MVP Jan Vesely, who is out with an injury. In some ways, these two countries, which were among the best in Europe many years ago, are back in the elite.
Poland played its only previous Wolrd Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1967 and finished fifth, with the two best scorers in the tournament: Mieczyslaw Lopatka with a total 177 points (19.7 ppg.) and Bogdan Likszo with 174 points total. Poland's most outstanding player this year is Unicaja Malaga's Adam Waczynski while the team also has the youngest player in the tournament: Alexander Balcerowski of Gran Canaria of Spain, who was born on November 19, 2000.
The Czechs have also had a top scorer in a World Cup: Kamil Brabenec in Manila in 1978 with an average of 26.9 points. The Czech Republic is playing at the World Cup as an independent country for the first time; in the past, it played under the name Czechoslovakia, whose best finish was sixth in Ljubljana 1970. In the past, the team had great players. One of them was Jiri Zidek Sr., the father of Euroleague.TV commentator Jiri Zidek Jr., who will be inducted in the FIBA Hall of Fame this year. The induction ceremony will coincide with the last stretch of the China World Cup. Other great names for that country included Kamil Brabenec, Zdenek Bobrovsky, Zdenek Kos, Zdenek Dousa, Gustav Hraska and Jiri Pospisil.
With the absence of Vesely, Tomas Satoransky, a former EuroLeague star with FC Barcelona, has emerged as a team leader. Despite its loss to Greece, the Czechs managed to earn a ticket tor the quarterfinals.
Some other names that are familiar to all EuroLeague fans have also played a great World Cup, such as Bogdan Bogdanovic, Luis Scola, Ricky Rubio, Anderson Varejao and Milko Bjelica. Of course, the same thing can be said about the current stars in our competition like Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Facundo Campazzo, Gabriel Deck and Nico Laprovitola - all of Real Madrid; Pau Ribas and Pierre Oriola of FC Barcelona, Stefan Jovic of Khimki Moscow Region, Vladimir Lucic of FC Bayern Munich, Vasilije Micic of Anadolu Efes Istanbul and more.
As the phases pass, there are fewer and fewer teams still standing and, of course, fewer players playing, but some of those EuroLeague and EuroCup greats are still on the court and they will play for the medals. And they will win them.