U-18 European Championship: Serbia Completes the Grand Slam
by: Luis Fernández - Director of International Scouting
August 14, 2007
In a thrilling final featuring the dream matchup of Macvan vs. Koufos, Serbia amassed another triumph in the youth categories, while the Greek dominator ended up receiving the MVP award. With this victory in the European Junior Championship, the Balkan team has completed an unbelievable sweep by winning the four youth tournaments celebrated this summer, certifying its status as the best talent pool in Europe.
Macvan vs. Koufos
As Serbia and Greece got rid of the Baltic teams in the semifinals, only one thought flew over the Madrid Arena: a Milan Macvan vs. Kosta Koufos match-up, the perfect ending for the championship.
Still, the previous games had been really different for each other.
Macvan's first quarter against Latvia in the semifinal was puzzling to say the least. He was being shut down by the 6-9 Lauris Blaus (4 blocks in the game), a very solid inside player, but far from being a great intimidator. Macvan looked completely frustrated from the very start, as if he had a mental block hindering his basketball spark. Perhaps it was the hangover from the debacle that pitted the Serbians against Lithuania, probably not the most appealing situation for a competitive guy like him; perhaps it was only physical exhaustion. In the end he put things together again and led Serbia to the victory with a pretty decent performance.
Meanwhile, Koufos was coming off consecutive superb outings. In the previous three games, he had averaged 30.7 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5 blocks, just resting a combined 5 minutes in the process.
The semifinal against Lithuania again proved his dominance in the tournament, as he toyed with high-level players such as Donatas Motiejunas and Vaidas Cepukaitis during the first half. Almost unbeatable in the defensive zone, almost unstoppable in the low post, at some point his superiority was just ridiculous. Still, so much action took its toll and Koufos looked really tired by the end of the game, particularly suffering in terms of rebounding and defense. Anyway, Greece moved on with very solid contributions coming from the perimeter guys, perhaps overshadowed by Kosta, but really important in the team's success.
Come into the final, Koufos started his usual offensive dominance since the tip-off. He showed a complete repertoire during the first half. Obviously the low post was his premier objective, and emerged productive with his quick and physical spins, going aggressively towards the basket or settling for his nice right-handed hooks. He also used his shooting stroke, proving to be pretty consistent from a few steps inside the arc. He even delivered a Tim Duncan impersonation with a fantastic bank-shot released over his defender after a hesitation move. Still, the most surprising stuff came when, matched-up directly with Macvan, he decided to face him up and put the ball on the floor to exploit the limited quickness of the Serbian big man. And while he could rarely get completely rid of Milan, Koufos cashed in most of his drives with short shots or hooks.
There wasn’t much Macvan could do to stop Koufos, and actually the Serbian coach put other defenders on the Greek for most part of the first half. Also, the preceding game against Latvia and Macvan’s problems to produce in the low post didn’t forecast anything good against a beast like Kosta. But Macvan delivered an outstanding exhibition of basketball intelligence to overcome the Greek menace and, not only stay productive, but also display his best game of the tournament.
It started with the way he distributed the ball against the initial Greek 2-3 zone, quite aggressive in the perimeter line and therefore conceding some space in the high post. With Macvan’s terrific ability to fill spaces, it was a piece of cake for him to receive the ball right where he could completely disrupt that kind of defense. When Greece switched to man-to-man, it was Koufos himself taking care of the Serbian. But Macvan rarely allowed Koufos to intimidate him: from the low post he often used step-back fade-away shots that Kosta failed to stop, as well as hooks over the Greek while creating separation with his huge body. Macvan also went for a few jumpers to take Koufos out of position.
Still, it was Koufos and Greece doing the most damage and therefore comfortably leading the score. But as the game went on, Koufos got into foul trouble and became a bit tired, so it became increasingly easier for Macvan to execute his offensive moves. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only Kosta; the whole Greek team was pretty exhausted and paid for their very limited rotations right when Serbia increased its excellent defensive pressure. The Greek perimeter was so overwhelmed, that the ball flow to Koufos pretty much stopped and neither his teammates were able to consistently score.
Even if the Greeks showed their competitiveness by staying in the game until the very last minute, it was Serbia coming away with a 3-point victory. A special mention goes to Dusan Katnic, hands down one of the very best point guards in the tournament, who provided points for the Serbian team with his shooting touch and slashing abilities, while showing a lot of poise handling the point guard position, taking good decisions and emerging as a reliable reference for his teammates.
Back to our highlighted match-up, we can say it ended up pretty even, with comparable stats, and Macvan taking advantage of a better team surrounding him, but also getting the European Junior crown to pair with his recent World Junior title. As consolation prize, we could say, Koufos was named MVP. A well-deserved award indeed.
It’s a Grand Slam!
You can't feel anything but amazement about what Serbia has achieved this summer in youth competitions. Winners at the U-20 European Championship, followed by the U-19 World Championship and the U-16 European Championship and crowned with the U-18 European Championship title. To win the four championships the very same summer is an outstanding feature that speaks voices of the strength of the Serbian basketball, despite the struggles that the senior National Team has been going on for some years now.
Obviously there are no precedents, basically because this is only the second summer that four youth championships are being played (only recently did FIBA Europe start holding its continental tournaments yearly). And still it's quite safe to predict that this achievement won't be repeated for many years. Indeed, and stressing the magnitude of this grand slam, this is not anymore the eighties or the seventies, when Yugoslavia and the USSR pretty much ruled international basketball. With the deconstruction of those basketball superpowers and the emergence of other countries, there are more actors in contention, and such a feature is a lot more difficult to achieve.
Another interesting fact is that FMP Zeleznik has been able to gather three of the four MVP titles. The phenomenal point guard Milos Teodosic opened fire at the U-20 stage; Milan Macvan stole the show in the U-19 Worlds, despite being one year younger than most of his teammates and rivals, while Dejan Musli's seven feet found little opposition at the U-16 championship.
It could have been a sweep, as Macvan again was the best player on the junior championship team, but the balloting was pretty much done even before the game started (the organization feared the Spanish journalists, the great majority, boycotting both Lithuanian and Serbian players in the voting process), so he didn't stand a chance at that point against a very dominant Koufos.
From Ohio to MVP
Ten days, that’s the amount of time Kosta Koufos spent with the Greek National Team before the Championship started. Only ten days to get to know his teammates, coaches and playbook and merge with them. And just ten days later, he started collecting the MVP award that credits him as the most valuable player in the tournament.
Averaging 26.5 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 blocks or 1.4 steals in almost 35 minutes per game, Koufos delivered an almost unheard of statistical effort in the last decade. Nobody has come close to producing those numbers in junior category since 1996. Actually, nobody except Sani Becirovic and Giorgios Diamantopoulos, both in 1998, can credit a better scoring average.
Although already a well-known top prospect, this performance only boosts Koufos’ draft stock. If the draft was held tomorrow, he could end up being a top-5 pick. But he has a whole season ahead of him in Ohio State, and multiple games to, not only showcase his abilities, but also expose his flaws.
The first four guys were pretty much obvious picks. There wasn’t a fifth clear-cut candidate to round-out the team, but Edwin Jackson is not a bad choice at all. Averaging 18.8 points per game, Jackson was the scoring anchor for France. Although rather streaky in terms of accuracy, which resulted in a few bad games, he delivered some jaw-dropping scoring exhibitions, netting the ball from anywhere on court. Although undersized and somewhat one-dimensional, the guy is a gunner, a pure scorer with superb ability to get his shot from virtually any situation, allowing him to create offense on a regular basis.
Beating Around the Debacle
The echoes of the pre-arranged game between Serbia and Lithuania are still resounding.
For starters, the Spanish Federation addressed to FIBA Europe a formal reclamation, searching for a change in the result to allow Spain into the semifinals. Seems like a typical reaction. They also uploaded the last polemic instants on YouTube, to make the flagrancy of the arrangement widely public.
Both Serbia and Lithuania suffered during the final games the logical wrath coming from the Spanish audience, certainly a bit naive and short-sighted. It’s understandable; they are fans (also parents and players) and they are passionate. The other type of behavior seen is harder to swallow.
Ok, it was a very ugly thing to see on a basketball court, there’s always the right to complain and FIBA Europe should value whether to take some type of measure. But some people could have saved us a sad exhibition of hypocrisy.
It’s not the first time a thing like this happens, and it won’t be the last. And certainly, Spain is not free of guilt. Let’s see a couple of examples.
2004, U-18 European Championship: Spain faces Turkey in the last game of the preliminary round. A few deliberately missed free throws give the victory to the Turks and put the feared French out of the way of the Spanish squad. Spain would eventually collect the gold medal, with Sergio Rodríguez as MVP of the tournament.
1999, U-19 World Championship: Spain faces Croatia in the last game of the quarter-final round. The Spanish team deliberately gives up some of its point margin to leave Greece out of the semifinals. The Greeks were the only team capable of beating Spain in the tournament, and it had been an extremely difficult match-up in the previous years. Spain would eventually collect the gold medal with a generation featuring Pau Gasol, who has openly admitted these days that Spain has done similar stuff as Serbia and Lithuania in the past.
José Luis Sáez, president of the Spanish Federation, in an open letter addressed to George Vasilakopoulos, president of FIBA Europe, wonders “how are we who praise fair play going to face the youngsters and tell them that using the way of deceiving is possible to get better sportive results”.
Was the Spanish Federation thinking about that when they allowed the aforementioned examples to happen?
It gets worse. The players themselves showed a sign during the classification game against Turkey saying “We Love Basketball. FAIRPLAY”. Pretty ironic, since these very same players most likely lost on purpose two years ago in the U-16 category in the last game of the quarterfinal round to avoid France in the semifinals. How can they ask for fair play so loudly now?
Even more ironic, the rival in that game was the same Lithuania that officiates as offenders this time. And by winning that game, it was Lithuania who faced and eventually lost against France in the semis.
However, these examples don’t get to the point of arranging a result with the rival, which looks like a significantly more serious issue. But still you can find precedents coming from Iberia. In 1968, in the qualifying tournament for the Olympic Games, Spain and Poland did exactly the same as Serbia and Lithuania did a few days ago. Uruguay was left out of the Olympics as a result.
The big big problem this time is how obvious the Lithuanians, and particularly Donatas Motiejunas, made it known as revenge to the audience and the Spanish team. It comes to show how little intelligence this player possesses right now, looking very immature in his reactions.
There was the rumor, provided by the Spanish Federation, that FIBA Europe would punish both Serbia and Lithuania with a one-year suspension at this category. But this every day seems more of an unlikely scenario, particularly since the circus of signs (the Spanish players took the sign to the FIBA Europe table during a timeout) really annoyed Nar Zanolin, one of the top executives of the Continental organization.
Unfortunately, this won't be the last time a team plays to lose a game. Fortunately, what we'll remember in the future is the likes of Koufos, Macvan and their unforgettable performances here.