With six places are up for grabs for next year’s event in Spain, the winners of the Quarter-Finals to be played on Wednesday and Thursday will book their passage.
By the end of the EuroBasket, if World Cup hosts Spain are in the first six, then the top seven will progress.
Serbia meet Spain in Wednesday’s opener, followed by Slovenia’s clash with France.
On Thursday, Lithuania will go up against Italy, while Croatia will take on surprising Ukraine in the second game.
Spain are the two-time defending champions of Europe but lately, they haven’t played as well as Serbia.
Dusan Ivkovic’s team has veterans Nenad Krstic, Nemanja Bjelica and Stefan Markovic. yet the squad is the youngest in the competition with an average age of just over 24.
They have been impressive.
Not only did the finish top of Group B, the so-called ‘group of death’, but also finished first in Group E.
“You must be realistic and focused, forget everything done so far,” Serbia coach Ivkovic warned.
“The first (knockout game) is against Spain, a very experienced team that has a great advantage in the (point guard) position where we are most vulnerable and where we have the most injuries.
“Spain’s backcourt consists of four players (Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Sergio Rodriguez and Rudy Fernandez) with NBA experience, while Stefan Markovic (back) is just now getting out of bed and cannot run, and Nemanja Nedovic only this morning (Tuesday) did a small part of work in training.
“Up front they have a dominant center in (Marc) Gasol, but I think at center we have a certain advantage due to the length of the bench, our team game and quality.”
Spain center Marc Gasol says Serbia are going to be tough opponents.
“They play good basketball, they share the ball and they’re very generous to each other in terms of passing the ball.”
The clash with Serbia is a familiar one for basketball fans because the two nations have squared off several times in recent times.
Serbia upset Spain in the opening round at EuroBasket 2009, only to then fall when they met again in the Final.
They avenged the title-game setback in the Quarter-Finals of the 2010 FIBA World Championship, with Serbia’s Milos Teodosic hitting a long three-pointer at the buzzer.
France stars Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw were not at their best in Group E but Slovenia expect Les Bleus to be ready.
“More than half of the team has experience in the NBA, so we definitely have a tough game waiting for us,” Slovenia guard Goran Dragic said.
“If we show our true fighting spirit, while listening to the instructions of the coach, then we have nothing to fear.”
On Thursday, the hottest team in the competition, Croatia, will take aim at an eighth straight victory when meet Ukraine.
Jasmin Repesa’s side fell to Spain by 28 in their opening Group C game in Celje but won the following day against Georgia and haven’t looked back.
While victory in their last Group F game wasn’t a must on Monday for Croatia since they had already clinched a Quarter-Final spot, a 92-88 double overtime triumph over the Greeks has continued a fine run.
“It was very important because of our confidence,” Croatia center Ante Tomic said to FIBA.com. “Because it’s very important to keep winning, no matter if you are first, or second in the group.
“Now, we are first (in Group F) and we’re going to play against Ukraine. I don’t want to say that Ukraine are a bad team or anything like that, but I think it’s going to be easier than it would be against France.”
Ukraine thumped Serbia and very nearly beat Lithuania in their last Group E game.
Pooh Jeter, Ukraine’s naturalized point guard from the United States, says former NBA coach Mike Fratello has helped the team most on defense.
“Our defensive principles have been great,” he said to FIBA.com. “But we’re together. Once we got that first win against Belgium, we just never looked back.”
One win would get Ukraine to the World Cup.
“We’ve just got to win one game to advance to the World Cup. I’m speechless. Now, we’ve got to show everybody, continue having that hunger. This is the time. This is what we want. Now we have the opportunity and need to see what we do with it.”
Italy have the wind in their sails going into Thursday’s second Quarter-Final against Lithuania.
Their victory over Spain was crucial for the team’s confidence.
“When you’ve won five in a row and then lost two games to Croatia and Slovenia on the last possession, it’s a little bit tough,” Italy veteran Marco Belinelli said. “Our motivation was down, so to beat Spain, one of the best teams in the European Championship, was important.”
Can Italy get to the World Cup?
“That’s really important,” Belinelli said. “But at the same time, now it’s important to have a goal. We’re going to try and do our best at this European Championship.”