Serbia, Slovenia earn No. 1 seeds in EuroBasket 2022, but elimination phase awaits

Czech Republic v Serbia: Group D - FIBA EuroBasket 2022
Photo by Pedja Milosavljevic/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

With Nikola Jokic and Serbia as well as Vlatko Cancar and Slovenia surviving group play, now they will both enter the EuroBasket tournament as No. 1 seeds.

EuroBasket 2022 is in full swing and both participants from the Denver Nuggets have survived the first cuts.

Serbia destroyed anyone who stood in their way and they did so behind the stellar play of back-to-back NBA MVP Nikola Jokic as well as a roster stocked full of high IQ players who fit together incredibly well.

Slovenia, in the significantly tougher Group B, had a rough start, but found their footing in time to still emerge as the first seed. While their path to the tournament portion of EuroBasket was no where near as easy as Serbia, they are now battle hardened and have become stronger in the face of adversity. That could provide Vlatko Cancar, Luka Doncic and the rest of Slovenia’s roster an advantage Serbia lacks after Serbia waltzed through an overly simple first five games.

Before getting into what is to come in the tournament portion of EuroBasket, let’s take a moment to look back on how the group phase played out for both Jokic and Serbia as well as Cancar and Slovenia.

Conclusion of the group phase

As stated above, the biggest difference between Serbia and Slovenia were the strength of the group they played in, but that did not stop both teams from accomplishing their goal of being the first seed in their respective groups.

Both teams relied heavily on their superstar in Doncic and Jokic and now both have a chance to face one another during the tournament, but more on that later. For now, let’s just take a look at the dominance of each nation in their group.

Serbia

Having Serbia in Group D with Czech Republic, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, and Poland was simply unfair. Serbia went 5-0 and essentially none of their five games in group play were a true test.

Yes, Israel pushed the Serbians and lost by just 11 points, by far the closest game for Serbia in group play, but to call it a true challenge would be wrong. Israel was only that close because Serbia was allowing them to keep up. If Serbia entered that game the way they did their other four matchups, the win would have been much more comfortable.

Ultimately, Serbia defeated their five opponents by an average of 21.6 points without needing to get into third gear or higher and they went a perfect 5-0 in their five games in Prague. Jokic in particular looked as if he was playing during NBA’s All-Star weekend — not one of the most storied international tournaments in the world — and the credit for allowing Jokic to not over-exert himself goes to the rest of Serbia’s roster which has played extremely well and is stocked full of high-impact players.

Jokic is playing just 24.3 minutes per game over Serbia’s five games in the group phase of EuroBasket. Despite his low number of minutes, he is averaging 19.6 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He is turning the ball over twice a game, but he is averaging 1.8 steals as well. While those numbers certainly jump off the page, the most absurd part of Jokic’s statistical output thus far are his shooting splits. He is shooting a ridiculous 68.4% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 88.9% from the foul line.

Let’s be honest; group play meant next to nothing for Jokic and Serbia. The real games come next when the elimination phase begins.

Slovenia

Slovenia only took a single loss during their five games in group play, but their 4-1 record does not accurately represent how difficult their path has been. Four of their five games were decided by single digits including their 93-97 loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Still, Group B featured Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Germany, Hungary, and Lithuania; most of which are storied basketball nations. Bosnia and Herzegovina has the Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic. France features the Minnesota Timberwolves star center Rudy Gobert as well as Evan Fournier of the New York Knicks. Germany has Daniel Theis, Dennis Schroder, and Franz Wagner who all have NBA experience. Lithuania is built around NBA players Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas as well as Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who once played in the NBA.

That group is significantly tougher than who Serbia had to face.

Still, Slovenia went 4-1 thanks to the incredible play of Doncic, who put Slovenia on his back and drug them out of the group phase. Doncic is averaging 26.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game including a 47-point masterpiece against France.

In addition to Doncic’s magnificence, he received help from both Zoran and Goran Dragic as well as Nuggets own Cancar, who has had a strong showing in EuroBasket so far. Cancar is averaging 10.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 assists while playing 27.9 minutes per game including a 22-point outing. Overall, Cancar has shot a chilly 44.7% from the field, but is 6-16 from three-point range and only has two turnovers in five games while playing strong defense; the skills the Nuggets need from him most.

It was not easy, but Slovenia still acquired the first seed in Group B and now will turn their attention to the elimination phase of EuroBasket.

Upcoming elimination phase

Now that the elimination phase of EuroBasket 2022 is here, that means the tournament will begin in Berlin, Germany where the final 16 teams will meet up to battle for Gold. Here is how the bracket looks with the group phase concluded.

The four No. 1 seeds will be Spain from Group A, Slovenia from Group B, Greece from Group C, and Serbia from Group D and those are unquestionably the four most talented and feared teams of the remaining 16 nations in EuroBasket. The No. 1 seeds from Group A and C will be on the left side of the bracket while the No. 1 seeds from Group B and D — Slovenia and Serbia respectively — will be in the right side of the bracket.

This sets up a fun sprint to the finals for both Serbia and Slovenia. If both manage to fight their way to the semifinals, they will face off with each other to earn the right to go to the finals to compete for Gold in what will be a battle between friends and teammates in Cancar and Jokic.

Let’s take a closer look at the path to the finals for each of Serbia and Slovenia as well as the teams on the other side of the bracket.

Serbia

Serbia will begin their push to the finals against Italy in the first round of the elimination phase on Sunday in Berlin. Italy, after losing Danilo Gallinari to an ACL tear, are significantly less threatening. Serbia should not have much issue pushing past the Italians, but next up would be the winner between Turkey and France with the French being the favorite to advance to the next round.

If France did win, it would put both Jokic and Gobert in familiar territory — facing off against one another. When considering both have been in the same division in the NBA since they were drafted, it becomes obvious just how well they each know the others game. That should make for a fun battle to stave off elimination.

That being said, Turkey could upset France and push their way into the quarterfinals against Serbia. Turkey has Alperen Sengun, Furkan Korkmaz and former Knicks point guard Shane Larkin on their roster and they have proven to be a tough opponent.

If Serbia managed to then beat either France or Turkey, they would open the door for the possibility of taking on Slovenia, the reigning EuroBasket champions, in the semifinals before reaching their goal of the EuroBasket finals.

Slovenia

Slovenia’s defense of their EuroBasket championship from five years ago will begin on Saturday against an inferior Belgium team in a game that Slovenia should win handily.

Slovenia’s path to the semifinals for a potential matchup with Serbia is not fraught with tough opponents and difficult challenges. If Slovenia defeats Belgium like they should, their next adversary will be either Poland or the cinderella story in Ukraine.

Poland just got demolished by Serbia in what was a 30-point loss. Their talent level and cohesion is no where near Slovenia. Ukraine does have Svi Mykhailiuk and Alex Len leading the way which could make life difficult for Slovenia, but on paper Slovenia is the better team.

If Slovenia can get past those two games, it is very likely they will see Jokic and Serbia next for a possible trip to the finals in what would be a highly-anticipated battle between Doncic and Jokic.

Other side of the bracket

With one side of the bracket outlined, let’s take a closer look at the other.

The two No. 1 seeds are Greece, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Spain, led by Juancho and Willy Hernangomez, Usman Garuba as well as former Nuggets player Rudy Fernandez. Both are heads and shoulders above virtually everyone else on that side of the bracket.

Still, Lithuania and Germany can each be a force to be reckoned with and Germany is hosting the tournament in Berlin effectively making them home team in every game they play. Additionally, Croatia has a capable roster led by Bojan Bogdanovic of the Utah Jazz.

Of the first round games on this side of the bracket, only one seems particularly competitive: Spain versus Lithuania. Lithuania had a horrid start to group play, but bounced back nicely to avoid elimination. Now, with two NBA players on their roster, they have the means to upset Spain in Berlin and move onto the second round.

Beyond that game, everything else seems fairly simple to predict. Greece should have little-to-no issue with Czech Republic, Germany should walk past Montenegro, and Croatia has no business losing to Finland.

From there, the games could get very interesting. Greece versus Germany would be far from a walk in the park for Antetokounmpo while Croatia will prepare for whoever wins between Spain and Lithuania.

Ultimately, it seems most likely that Greece will take on Spain in the semifinals for an opportunity to compete for Gold and unseat Slovenia. The Greeks would likely come away with the semifinals win over Spain which leads them to the finals where they would likely face off with one of Serbia or Slovenia for the title of EuroBasket 2022 champions.

Saturday morning will be the start of the tournament and it should be a good one.

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