BRINGING HOME THE GLORY: Talented young basketball players from around the world will be competing in this year’s U19 Championship.
RIGA - Beginning on Thursday the future stars of basketball will be on display in Latvia, when the 2011 FIBA U19 World Championship tips off. The tournament, dubbed “The stars of today, tomorrow,” will bring to Latvia the next generation of basketball stars from as far afield as Australia, with the tournament acting as an important platform for scouts representing the world’s best leagues to pick out the next potential Michael Jordan.
This year 16 teams will participate in the ten day tournament, which culminates with the final in Riga on July 10. The first week of the tournament sees the teams divided into four groups, with group play to take place in Valmiera and Liepaja. In Valmiera, Brazil, Poland, Russia and Tunisia make up group A while Argentina, Australia, and Chinese Taipei will battle it out with hosts Latvia for group B honors. Down in Liepaja, Croatia, Canada and Korea will compete, with the Baltic’s best hope, Lithuania, in group C, while China, Serbia and Egypt have their work cut out for them in group D if they are to get past pre-tournament favorites, USA. The top two teams from each group will then move on to Riga to contest the quarter, semi and grand finals.
USA won the previous tournament in New Zealand in 2009, going undefeated on their run to the championship and will again go into this tournament as heavy favorites. Having a wide pool of arguably the best high school basketball talent in the world, mixed in with a number of players who already have college basketball experience, American trainer Paul Hewitt has the luxury of a bench that runs deep and, unlike a number of other teams that will compete, no reliance on one or two players.
They have, however, had one shakeup in the lead-up in their tournament. Having not long arrived in Europe on Sunday, USA took on the Lithuanian u20 squad on the latter’s home turf, where they were thoroughly beaten by their hosts, 101-72. Knowing U.S teams of the past, however, it will not be any cause for concern as they will instead focus on peaking at the right time.
Amongst the American class of 2011 is Tim Hardaway Jr., son of former NBA (National Basketball Association) All-star and widely considered greatest ever exponent of the crossover, Tim Hardaway. Hardaway Jr. is one of the most experienced players in the American squad, having already had one season of college basketball as a freshman for Michigan.
A team that finds itself in a similar situation to the Americans, with a bench that goes deep and arguably carries the best hopes of the European teams, is Lithuania. Currently ranked third in u19 rankings, Lithuania will feel right at home across the border and can expect large hoards of fans to make the short journey north to assist them in their quest for glory.
Amongst their ranks Lithuania can call upon one of the most exciting young talents in the men’s game: Jonas Valanciunas. When the NBA draft took place in the United States on Thursday last week, the six-foot-11 center was picked fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors, where he will link up with compatriot Linas Kleiza.
Another player who also went in the draft was Latvian Davis Bertans. Picked 42nd overall by the Indiana Pacers before immediately being traded to the San Antonio Spurs, the six-foot-10 small forward will carry the hopes of the host nation on his young shoulders, and it is a challenge that he is not taking lightly. Recently, Bertans opted out of playing games at the Adidas Eurocamp – a platform for potential NBA players to impress scouts – citing it was more important that he rested ahead of the world championships. “For me the most important thing is the World Championship, which takes place in Latvia. This could be the only chance in my life to play in the World Championship, especially at home,” Bertans told leading online basketball Web site slamonline. With the home fans behind them and with Bertans’ focus solely on bringing glory to Latvia, the home side can be expected to upset more than one more fancied team as they aim to make it out of pool play.
Tickets to all games are on sale now and can be bought from the official tournament Web site, www.latvia2011.fiba.com.