Israel basketball Sherf 248.88.
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Israel gets its ninth straight European Championship campaign underway on Monday, boldly setting itself the target of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in six years.
In the last two EuroBasket tournaments (2005, 2007), the national team progressed past the first round of competition, but could not make it any further and had to settle for a place among the top 12 teams in the continent.
In the last 10 championships Israel has competed in since 1985, the team has only once reached the quarterfinals, finishing in seventh place in EuroBasket 2003.
The magnitude of the task the side has set itself can be illustrated by the simple fact that coach Tzvika Sherf will be manning the sidelines for an eighth European Championship this week in Poland, and he is still searching for his first appearance in the quarterfinals.
Israel has gone through a summer of transition and many question marks still hang over the team entering Monday's tournament opener against Croatia.
The retirement of Meir Tapiro left a big void at the point guard position, and while it seems Gal Mekel has made the most of the opportunity and will start in his place, it remains to be seen if he can indeed fill Tapiro's big shoes.
Omri Casspi's decision to focus on his fledgling NBA career and skip the championships reminded everyone just how shallow Israel's roster is, especially under the baskets, where Yaniv Green will need to play out of his skin once more if the team is to have any chance of achieving its goals.
"It is true that the group will be decided over all three games, but we are only focusing on Croatia at the moment," said Sherf, whose side will play Macedonia on Tuesday, before completing its group A games when it faces Greece the following day.
"We have analyzed Croatia's last seven games. They have many options and I'm not sure we can close them all down as they have outstanding players in every position.
Former Maccabi Tel Aviv superstar and current Olympiakos center Nikola Vujcic will play at a major tournament for Croatia for the first time since EuroBasket 2005, with center Mario Kasun also back in the squad after missing last year's Olympics.
"They have Vujcic and we all know what he is capable of. We will need to keep our cool and fight for every ball. We have worked hard and we are entering the game in the best situation possible," Sherf noted.
Croatia, which between 1992 and 1995 won an Olympic silver medal, a World Championship bronze and two more bronze medals at the European Championships, struggled for some years afterwards, but finished EuroBasket 2007 in sixth position and eventually advanced to the Beijing Games.
The Croats reached the quarterfinals in China and were only knocked out by eventual silver medalist Spain.
Coach Jasmin Repesa has an impressive roster to work with once more, although sharpshooter Marko Tomas is out through injury.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Roko Ukic, CSKA Moscow shooter Zoran Planinic, Marko Popovic and Davor Kus give the Croats a menacing backcourt, not that Repesa lacks any fire power in the paint.
Besides Vujcic and Kasun, Nikola Prkacin, Kresimir Loncar and Sandro Nicevic all dwarf Israel's big men, with forwards Marin Rozic, Mario Stojic and Marko Banic also all capable of hurting Sherf's men.
"Israel may not be a big name on the international scene and it may not seem to be a very strong team, but it is definitely a dangerous opponent," Vujcic said. "Most of the players on the Israeli roster have Euroleague experience and proved themselves by beating us two years ago."
Israel stunned Croatia in the last European Championships and Planinic believes Monday's game is crucial for his team.
"The game against Israel is very dangerous," he said.
"We need to be mentally strong for this game because if we win it we will grow in confidence and everything will be easier after that."
Israel held a short shooting practice at the arena in Poznan on Sunday before Sherf gave his players a final tactical briefing.
"I have a good feeling, but I think that this tournament could go either way as far as we are concerned," center Ido Kozikaro said.
"It will either be a success story or will end after just a few days. I feel Croatia is one of the favorites to win the title. They possess every weapon and it is going to be a very difficult game."