Croatia in Eurobasket; Reason for Hope, Frustration

Croatia in Eurobasket; Reason for Hope, Frustration
Sep 27, 2005, 11:58 pm
Croatia’s Endless Frustration

Four days after Croatia’s overtime defeat against Spain in the Eurobasket quarterfinals, the referees in charge of that game; Luigi Lamonica, Virgilijus Dovidavicius and Volodimyr Drabikovsky, are still dominant names on the covers of Croatian newspapers.

The three of them are being compared to the worst criminals known in Croatia and the popular website has even shamefully offered a 1000 Euro reward for spitting on one of them. "Will there be any jail for this bastards?", "Croatia robbed", "FIBA killed Croatian basketball" are just some of headlines we’ve seen in the Croatian media lately.

What did they do? From the average Croatians perspective they called Nikola Vujcic for four imaginary fouls, they sent the Spainards to the charity stripe 49 times as opposed to Croatia’s 12, and most importantly they didn’t call the seemingly obvious foul by Jorge Garbajosa on Marko Tomas in the last seconds. Fran Vazquez quickly put grabbed the loose ball and put in the basket over Nikola Vujcic to force overtime and the eventual loss.

The reactions after the game were very harsh, and according to many in Croatia, FIBA was guilty for everything. Coach Neven Spahija resigned immediately, saying "this was my last game in FIBA competition, they humiliated as. I never believed that this could happen in sports, politics is obviously more important".

Gordan Giricek is thinking about retiring from international basketball, while Nikola Vujcic already did so: "It was my last game for Croatia, it doesn’t make sense to play if you can’t win". The usually quiet and calm Vujcic didn’t mince words "I don’t want FIBA’s wildcard, I will piss on it"

Former Croatian national team head coach Mirko Novosel reacted angrily as well: "The jerks from FIBA destroyed our team". The President of Croatian Basketball Association Danko Radic commented: "FIBA ordered a murder on Croatian basketball".

Everybody is overreacting for one important reason, because Croatia finally after a decade of mediocrity had a team that was capable of going all the way. During some stretches of games against Turkey, Italy and Spain, Croatia played on a level which neither Greece, Germany or any other team at this Eurobasket could match. And that’s what is so disappointing for Croatian fans who, according to some sources, sent over 5000 protests by email to FIBA.

Slovenian journalists added fuel to the fire by claiming that FIBA Europe’s chief secretary Nar Zanolin celebrated Spain’s win with their board members.

Croatia didn’t make the ultimate goal-- qualification for the World Championships next year. This is a shame for basketball fans everywhere, as a Croatia is an extremely exciting and enjoyable team to watch. They have a great young core of the squad in Roko-Leni Ukic, Zoran Planinic, Marko Tomas and Mario Kasun still intact and should sooner or later live up to their potential with a big result.

Ukic Showed Star Potential

Roko-Leni Ukic showed the world in the quarterfinals against Spain exactly what kind of a player he is. After playing only 12 minutes total in the first four games, Ukic got a great opportunity to shine when Croatia’s starting Point guard Zoran Planinic got injured at the start of the game. Ukic came in at the start of the second quarter and played a solid 8 minutes. He was very good putting pressure on the ball on the defensive end, showing good lateral quickness, coming up with a steal and then creating an easy layup for Gordan Giricek on the fast break. His only points in the first half came after a sweet spin-move in counter-attack. The game was especially interesting for Raptors fans who could see their new point guard Jose Manuel Calderon as well as their PG of the future in Ukic guarding each other for several minutes.

After leading by 8 points at halftime Croatia struggled mighty in the 3rd quarter due to the fact that their star PF Nikola Vujcic picked up his 4th personal foul, while Zoran Planinic and Mario Kasun got injured in the first quarter. Coach Spahija put Ukic back in and he single-handedly kept them in the game. Ukic started his show with a nice floater after beating his defender off the dribble. Then he hit a three-pointer with a few seconds left on the shot-clock. Roko Leni got a basket plus a foul after another good penetration. He finished the 3rd quarter in style hitting a three slightly after time expired (but still counted) from downtown. Ukic scored 11 of Croatia’s 15 points in this period, a spectacular performance from Tau Ceramica’s new guard.

Ukic continued to play well in the fourth quarter by scoring another two points after penetrating, which were his last points of the game. He continued to take the ball strong to the basket and was unlucky to see two tough shots rim out. With 5 minutes left in the last quarter coach Spahija benched him until the last minute of overtime when the game was already over. Until then Ukic was by far Croatia’s best player and was red hot. Although the referees made some questionable calls, this was probably the decision that ultimately saw Croatia lose it’s spot in the semifinals. It was very hard to understand why Ukic wasn’t on the floor in the crucial stretches where his team needed him most.

In the game for 5th place and the world championships qualification, Ukic saw extended playing time due to Planinic’s absence and backup PG Marko Popovic’s foul trouble. After seeing him dominating in a game against Spain, this performance was a bit disappointing. He got into the lane easily time after time, but struggled to convert many of his trademark floaters. He missed a couple of easy layups too, likely because of his lack of strength at the basket at this point. Roko Leni didn’t do the best job involving his teammates in the game as well. Defensively he was very solid once again. Ukic played 20 minutes and logged 9 points (FG 4/13), 2 rebounds and 2 assists.

The final game against Russia for 7th place didn’t have any meaning so it was obviously less intense. Spahija played mostly with Ukic, Damir Rancic and Marko Tomas in the backcourt. It is important to mention this since Ukic knows both pretty well from KK Split and the U-21 National Team. This might explain the great offensive production and Ukic’s improvement in distributing. He excelled in transition, while also creating a lot of open looks for sharpshooters Rancic and Tomas. He committed just one turnover despite playing the entire 40 minutes. Generally speaking Ukic did a good job of limiting his turnover in this Eurobasket, losing just 4 possessions in 94 total minutes.

The defensive approach in this game wasn’t at its highest level for obvious reasons, but Ukic did a good job holding Russian PGs J.R. Holden, Petr Samoylenko and Anton Ponkrashov to just 5 points total. Ukic’s final statline: 16 points, 3 rebound`s and 7 assist`s.

In 6 Eurobasket games Ukic averaged 15.8 mpg, 7.2 ppg, 1.0rpg and 1.7apg while shooting 15/42 from field and 8/9 from Foul line.

"This experience was worth gold. It’s a big thing for young player to play against opponents who you just see on television so far. It is great that Damir (Rancic), Marko (Tomas) and I got the chance to play against superior competition despite our young age" - commented Ukic after the game versus Russia.

Roko-Leni proved that he can perform at the highest level of Europe. It was quite impressive to see a youngster taking over the game against Spain the way he did with so many quality players on the floor. Ukic showed his leadership skills and proved his ability to perform well under pressure. Tau Ceramica’s board of directors must be delighted with their new signing. While Ukic certainly lacks the body to play in the NBA right now, there is great hope that he will pan out into one of the next great European PGs for the next decade or so. It will be interesting to follow his progress next season in the ACB and Euroleague playing for Tau.

Tomas Blossoms in Quarterfinals Against Spain

Marko Tomas stepped on the floor for the first time in the game with just 3 minutes left in the 4th quarter of the quarterfinals against Spain and left quite an impression. His attitude was exceptional, being completely opposite of what he showed until Friday, from that point on becoming the most influential draft prospect in the Eurobasket. Tomas was all over the floor fighting for rebounds, getting into the passing lines and playing terrific defense. He also created off the dribble and made some excellent passes to Nikola Vujcic and Matej Mamic for two easy baskets under the rim. Tomas made his presence felt on the game immediately and was enough of a positive force along with Ukic to make many openly question why the Croatian coach had buried his two terrific talents so far on his bench up until then.

Tomas converted his first two FT’s in the last minute, but then made just one of two which enabled Spain to tie the result after the controversial Fran Vasquez offensive rebound and layup with 3 seconds left in regular time. Marko finished the game with 3 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in 12 minutes.

Marko played 33 minutes against Slovenia with mixed impressions. He presented a good stroke from outside by hitting 2 three-pointers, while being active on the defensive glass and grabbing 6 boards. The Slovenians beat him off the dribble several times, but it was still another reasonably decent defensive performance for Tomas. Unfortunately he didn’t repeat the same terrific impact he had in the game against Spain, being too passive this time. Tomas finished with 12 points, while not missing any shots at all (3/3 FG, 2/2 3PT, 4/4 FT). He didn’t create anything off the dribble, showing average explosiveness with the ball in his hands.

Marko got another 33 minutes in last game against Russia, where we could see pretty much the same type of game he showed in previous outings, although with excellent results this time around. Shooting is currently his main weapon, and with the extra field goal attempts he finished with 22 points (FG 7/11, 3PT 4/7, 4/5 FT). Viktor Kryapa and Sergey Monya’s athleticism did bother him, but he was able to get his shot off which is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Monya and Kryapa didn’t penetrate much so we couldn’t see if Tomas is fast enough to stay in front of them. As usual he didn’t penetrate much himself either. Overall he did show about the same level of game as the Portland Blazers duo in this matchup.

While Tomas might not have been as impressive as his teammate and friend Roko-Leni Ukic in the one highlight performance with the tournament on the line, he did have a nice all around effort. Tomas will need to show more often aggressiveness and consistent hustle as he presented against Spain. He showed the flashes of brilliance that make him a more than legitimate first round prospect. We could say that his performance during the past weekend helped his draft stock, and although Tomas lacks the freakish athleticism to be a top prospect, he has enough interesting characteristics to be considered a decent rotational prospect for an NBA club in the future.

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