After weeks of intensive practices and friendly tournaments held across Europe, FIBA’s EuroBasket 2013 was set to finally tip off Wednesday in Slovenia.
Israel, making its 27th EuroBasket appearance, was to play its first match against Great Britain at 3:30 p.m. local time.
The biggest story line for the Israeli squad heading in to the tournament was the absence of Gal Mekel, who had a breakout year playing for Maccabi Haifa in 2012-2013. Mekel signed an NBA contract with the Dallas Mavericks and will not play in the tournament.
Mekel agreed not to play after the Mavericks’ front office indicated that they would rather he skip the tournament to prepare for his rookie season.
Perhaps the most interesting story, however, was the addition of Alex Tyus, the 25-year-old center who converted to Judaism while he was at the University of Florida.
Tyus recently signed a deal with Israeli powerhouse club Maccabi Tel Aviv after two successful professional season, first with Maccabi Ashdod and then with Italian-based Euroleague squad Cantu. At 2.06 meters and 220 pounds, the impressive Tyus has been battling a recent injury and is not expected to play a lot of minutes, but can still bring a lot of energy when he gets in the game.
National captain Yotam Halperin is being joined by Hapoel Jerusalem teammates Elishay Kadir and Yaniv Green. For the first time in many years Hapoel Eilat has two of its players suiting up, as guard Afik Nissim and Nitzan Hanochi hope to prove their worth. Haifa’s veteran center Ido Kuzikaro, Hapoel Tel Aviv guard Raviv Limonad and Maccabi Tel Aviv’s forward Guy Pnini round up Shivek’s squad.
The 24-nation tournament — featuring games across the tiny central European nation of Slovenia — includes some of the most talented and gifted basketball players from around the continent.
The tournament is held every two years and Spain is the current defending champion after taking gold in Lithuania 2011. Israel finished that tournament in a disappointing 14th place with a record of 2-3.
Going into the 2013 championships, teams were drawn into four groups of six teams, all of which will face each other once in the first round. Israel, led by head coach Arik Shivek, is in Group A, facing up and coming powerhouse France, Great Britain, Ukraine, Belgium and a German team searching for an identity following the announcement that NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki won’t join his fellow German teammates this summer.
Arie Livnat, a prominent Israeli basketball reporter, told The Times of Israel that he believes Israel was lucky enough to be drawn into a relatively “weak” group. “Great Britain is not at the level of a typical Eurobasket team. I also believe Belgium and Ukraine are not much stronger.”
The national team has a lot to prove after a very disappointing campaign in 2011. Despite not having Mekel and several other key players, the team must not make excuses and realize it has enough talent in the back-court and front-court to advance past the first round and make some noise in the second round, said Livnat. Anything less than advancing to the second round would be considered an unsuccessful campaign.
Opening opponents Great Britain have an Israeli coach, Guy Goodes. The British team is not expected to defeat the Israelis; several players on the UK squad are not signed by any professional clubs. In addition, two of the team’s NBA players aren’t participating in the tournament. But one thing all sports team must remember is to never underestimate your opponent.
Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.