|03 September 2013|
|Spanish head coach Juan Antonio Orenga was bombarded with questions from Croatian media ahead of his team's impending clash with the Croatians on Wednesday|
By Dimitris Kontos
A group of Croatian journalists swarmed around Spain head coach Juan Orenga after his team's practice session in Celje Arena on Tuesday, the day before the eagerly-anticipated EuroBasket opener between the two teams.
Questions ranged from what he thought about Real Madrid's defence on Croatian FC Barcelona center Ante Tomic in the Spanish Liga Endesa finals, to the reasons why Spain is as dominant in European basketball today as Yugoslavia during the 1970s and 1980s.
If this was EuroBasket 2011, no Croatian media would show so much interest in a clash with Spain, all but certain that it would end in a painful battering.
But in the build-up to the EuroBasket premiere in Slovenia, a sizeable portion of fans and media in Croatia is hopeful, if not optimistic, that their team can surprise the reigning European champions on Wednesday evening.
"Spain always start slow in big tournaments, so if you are going to play them, it's better you play them in the first game and you have a good chance to win," is the consensus among them.
"We will see about that, I am not so sure," said Croatia head coach Jasmin Repesa, who begged to differ when he talked to fibaeurope.com.
"Just because it happened in the last two EuroBaskets, people think it will be repeated here, but I am not so sure."
At EuroBasket 2009, Spain lost 66-57 to Serbia in their opening game and then in their second clash against Great Britain they came back in the fourth frame to grind out an 84-76 win.
In their EuroBasket 2011 premiere, Pau Gasol had to come up with 29 points and Juan Carlos Navarro poured in 23 points and sunk two crucial free throws to enable Spain to edge out Poland, 83-78.
"Well we will definitely try not to allow them to catch us off guard, and then we'll see what comes out of it in the end," Orenga told fibaeurope.com with a smile.
"It's true that if you look at what happened in the last two EuroBasket tournaments, we started off with problems and then grew gradually as a team," the Spanish head coach, who was then Sergio Scariolo's assistant, offered.
"But it's also true that in Poland (2009) we had four players nursing injuries in the beginning and in Lithuania (2011), we won games while not playing at our best and then we improved during the course of the tournament because the opponents demanded that we play at our best."
HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
Orenga however certainly does not see what happened in the past two editions of the tournament as a sort of omen for his team's form on Wednesday.
"This year it's different to both 2009 and 2011," the Spanish coach said.
"Because of the changes in the team, we need to start at full speed.
"Of course we want to grow as a team as the tournament progresses, but we will try to hit the ground running."
|Ante Tomic and Marc Gasol offer an interesting potential clash in the paint on Wednesday|
Repesa certainly does not expect anything less from the two-time European champions.
"Spain played very well in preparations, they won all friendly games while we struggled quite a lot," the Croatian coach admitted.
"We had ups and downs in our performance but on the other hand I am sure we are ready for the game on Wednesday."
Croatia are looking forward to the clash with Spain, but so too do the reigning European champions.
"The first game in a tournament is always complicated, you're still trying to adapt while at the same time there is a pressure to begin with a victory, but I think we have prepared very well for this game," Spain guard Sergio Llull said.
"They're a very tough opponent and on top of everything they are playing close to home.
"But I think it is better for the opener to play against an opponent like that, so you start with all five senses working at 100%.
"It won't be an easy game, but we're hoping to emerge with a win so that we kick off the championship on the right foot."
BEST BACKCOURT IN EUROPE
Orenga is full of praise for Croatia's frontcourt duo, Luka Zoric and Ante Tomic.
"We will try to not make it easy for Tomic to receive balls in the low post, but further from the basket," he said.
Repesa laughed when fibaeurope.com transferred to him what his Spanish opposite number said.
"Listen, I also like Zoric and Tomic, but I quite like Marc Gasol too, he is not bad at all," the Croatian coached said playfully.
"They [Zoric and Tomic] are atypical big guys, in that they can play in and out, both facing the basket and with their back to the basket, but Marc Gasol is similar in that respect, and he can play in a way that creates for his team-mates and himself.
So are those who say that Spain will depend heavily on Marc Gasol correct?
"No, it's true that Marc is their best frontcourt player, but they have definitely the best perimeter in Europe," Repesa argued.
"They are great on defence and can also play great in transition, they are very experienced.
"It's difficult to chose which of these four point guards will play and which will sit on the bench.
"Fortunately, not all four playmakers can be on the court simultaneously!"