Hopeful Estonia begins European Basketball Championship
The Estonian national basketball team begins its third European Championships tournament since re-independence. If Estonia got a high sixth place in 1993, then in 2001 the team hopelessly lost all of its group games and ended up 14th. What chances does the Estonian team have this time around?
Compared to 1993 and 2001, the format of the European Championships has changed and instead of 16 teams 24 will take part. The leaders in the Estonian team are Siim-Sander Vene (club team Žalgiris Kaunas, Lithuania), Kristjan Kangur (Varese, Italy), Janar Talts (Tartu Rock) and Sten-Timmu Sokk (Dynamo Moscow, Russia). The head coach is the 1988-Olympic-winner Tiit Sokk.
Estonia is in group D in the tournament, which is played in Riga. Each of the four groups is played in a different country. Besides us, the group consists of Latvia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Ukraine and experts consider this to be the weakest group at the European Championships. Four teams from each group go on to the round of 16, which broadly means two wins will be enough to go through. After the group stage the play-offs will take place in Lille, France.
Estonia's first opponent is the Czech Republic on Saturday, September 5. Czech Republic's leaders are Jan Vesely (Fenerbache, Turkey) and Tomaš Satoransky (Barcelona, Spain). The team is reliant on the leaders and their strength depends much on those two men. If Vesely and Satoransky are in poor form at the tournament, then Estonia's chances for a win are reasonable. Our advantage is that our coaches, led by Sokk, will be able to do much scouting before and gather information on Czech players.
On Sunday, September 6, Estonia will play Belgium. The leaders of Belgium are also from top European clubs and include Matt Lojeski (Olympiacos, Greece), Axel Hervelle (Bilbao Basket, Spain) and Sam Van Rossom (Valencia, Spain). Compared to the Czechs, Belgium has a more stable team, but they are no top basketball nation in Europe. They will be tough opponents for Estonia, but on a good day, it should be possible to beat them.
On Monday, September 7, Estonia will meet the dark horse of the group – Ukraine. Ukraine has seen a number of good players drop out, with even US coach Mike Fratello leaving. Ukraine will take a very young side to the European Championship with Kyrylo Fesenko (Lokomotiv Kuban, Russia), of NBA-fame, the oldest member at 28. According to various experts, Ukraine is the most unpredictable team in the group – they may show fantastic play, or fall apart completely.
After a day of rest, on September 9 Estonia will meet the large basketball nation of Lithuania. Lithuania will bring a mix of young talent and seasoned veterans, with center Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors, NBA), forwards Jonas Maciulis (Real Madrid, Spain), Paulius Jankunas (Žalgiris Kaunas, Lithuania) and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (Malaga Unicaja, Spain) as team leaders. Only the most optimistic basketball fans will hope for an Estonian victory against Lithuania – realistically Estonia's chances for a win are minute.
In the last group game on September 10, Estonia will face Latvia. The game will be played in front of a full house. Latvians are certainly the most known opponent as the teams have met many times over the past few years. The leaders of the Latvian team are point guards Janis Blums (Panathinaikos Athens, Greece) and Dairis Bertans (Bilbao Basket, Spain), center Kaspars Berzins (Krasnye Krylia, Russia) and forward Janis Timma (Riga VEF; Latvia). After Lithuania, it is probably Latvia who is group D's favorite, but the team is well known to the Estonian players and they managed to beat Latvia in a friendly in the summer.
Estonia has no easy opponents at the European Basketball Championship and any win would already count as a success. Qualifying to the next round would be, considering the strengths of others, a major achievement. But at the same time, the tournament would be a disappointment if the team fails to win even one game.