Israel looks for strong start to Euro campaign

Blue-and-white visit Montenegro to begin quest for 11th straight European Championships.

Lior Eliyahu 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Lior Eliyahu 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Israel only begins its EuroBasket 2013 qualifying campaign on Wednesday, but the game against Montenegro on the road may well set the tone for the national team’s quest to reach the European Championships for an 11th straight time.
The blue-and-white faces 10 games over the next month to qualify for next summer’s tournament, and with Montenegro being its main rival for second place in Group A, Israel coach Arik Shivek knows a win on Wednesday will be a significant early step in the right direction.
Perennial powerhouse Serbia is the favorite to win the group, which also includes the weaker Slovakia, Estonia and Iceland.
The top two teams from the six qualifying groups and the four best third-placed teams will make up the 16 sides who will join Spain, France, Russia, FYR of Macedonia, Lithuania, Greece, Great Britain and the hosts Slovenia in EuroBasket 2013.
“We had a good preparation period this summer and I’m pleased with our overall performances in the warm-up games,” said Shivek, whose team won nine of 10 tune-up encounters ahead of the trip to Montenegro.
“We suffered a bit of a slump in some of the games, but that is only natural and I’m happy that it happened before the campaign.
“We can’t wait to get started.”
Israel also faced Montenegro in EuroBasket 2011 qualification, winning in Tel Aviv and losing in Podgorica to qualify for the championships from second place, one game behind the Montenegrins.
“We know all about Montenegro, but there are no secrets and they will know everything about us as well,” said Shivek, who will be encouraged that Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic will not be playing for the hosts on Wednesday.
“The team that overcomes the nerves and executes its plan the best will win.”
After missing last summer’s European Championships, Omri Casspi of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers returns to the Israel lineup.
Casspi led the team in points (16.9 ppg) and minutes (29.3 mpg) in the EuroBasket 2011 qualifying campaign and the team struggled desperately without him in last year’s tournament, losing its first three games by an average 17.7 points to drop out of contention for a top 12 finish before triumphing in its final two meaningless group encounters.
Israel will also be boosted by the presence of Alex Tyus under the baskets and Yogev Ohayon’s breakthrough last season.
The team will badly miss the retired David Blu, but Tyus, who recently received Israeli citizenship and will replace Blu as the side’s nationalized player, will give the blue-and-white an option in the paint, both on the defensive and offensive ends of the floor, which it hasn’t possessed in years.
Ohayon came out of nowhere to become Maccabi Tel Aviv’s starting point guard last season and Shivek has repeatedly stated that he will be in charge of leading by example from the backcourt.
“Clearly, the first game in Montenegro is the key to the campaign,” Ohayon said.
“We have spent the last few weeks preparing for this game and the coaching staff has been telling us all they know about them every day.
“However, this is a long tournament and we need to be consistent and maintain our playing principals.
“I believe in this team, but we need to be focused to play our best.”