Dario Saric, Aleksandar Cvetkovic and Sergey Karasev showcased their star skills at the U19 World Championship in Latvia but will miss the U18 European Championship, diminishing the title chances for Croatia, Serbia and Russia, respectively, in Wroclaw, Poland.
With that trio out, defending U18 champions Lithuania have a chance to repeat – despite having no one back from the 2010 title – while Spain have a chance from rare U18 hardware and hosts Poland are legitimate contenders for at least their first-ever medal in European youth basketball with a squad loaded with talent.
Cvetkovic helped Serbia to the silver medal at the U19 Worlds earlier this month as the team’s leading scorer (14.4 ppg) and assist man (2.7 apg) while shooting 46 percent from long range. But Cvetkovic will not be on hand in Poland
Karasev, who helped Russia to silver at the U18 European Championship last summer, will also not grace the courts in Wroclaw after guiding Russia to the bronze medal as the team’s second leading scorer with 15.3 points to go along with 4.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
But the biggest name missing is Saric, who only turned 17 in April but is already one of the highest touted forwards in European basketball.
Saric won MVP honors at the 2011 Nike International Junior Tournament in leading KK Zagreb to the crown with 19 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a 76-65 win over Zalgiris Kaunas in the final at the Euroleague Final Four.
The 6-foot-10 forward starred at the U19 Worlds in Latvia, averaging a fourth-best 18.1 points and a third-best 10.1 rebounds to go along with 3.4 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 50.9 percent overall.
Saric was also the MVP of the 2010 U16 European Championship with tournament highs in points (24.3 ppg) and rebounds (11.5 rpg) while also averaging 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks in leading Croatia to their first U16 gold since winning gold in 1995.
Last summer he also played at the U18 European Championship with 12.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 steals a game.
Croatia finished eighth at the 2011 U19 Worlds despite having five players born in 1994 and 1995 in a tournament including players in the 1992 age group.
The winners of the U19 Worlds title are the same that won the U18 European crown – Lithuania, a team spearheaded by Jonas Valanciunas for the first U18 gold since 1994.
But the Lithuanians will have a different group in Poland. Still head coach Darius Dikcius has a team with talented players, led by Tauras Jogela, Mantas Mockevicius and Paulius Semaska – a trio which carried Lithuania to the silver medal at the U16 tournament in 2009.
Even though Russia do not have Karasev, they are still a strong contender in Poland after taking bronze at the 2011 U19 Worlds and silver at the 2010 U18 Euros – the first U18 medal for Russia since the CIS won bronze in 1992.
Head coach Sergey Skorochkin will rely predominantly on Vladislav Trushkin – Russia’s third leading scorer in Latvia – as well as Andrey Loginov, Gleb Goldyrev and Aleksandr Gudumak.
Serbia also remain in the title hunt despite not having a star (Cvetkovic) as the U18 gold medalists from 2009, 2007 and 2005 (as Serbia & Montenegro) still have a star guard in Nenad Miljenovic running the show for head coach Marko Icelic. Also on board is Luka Mitrovic for a talented Serbian side.
Spain have long dominated youth hoops in Europe, but not at the U18 level, where they have only won bronze since taking the 2004 title. Spain’s 1993 generation however is ready to re-stock the Iberians’ trophy case as Jaime Fernandez, Daniel Diez and Jorge Sanz joined together to win U16 gold in 2009.
While Saric not being in Poland is the biggest story thus far, the biggest story of the tournament could end up being the host nation as head coach Jerzy Szambelan has a team which could win its first youth medal.
The quintet of Przemyslaw Karnowski, Mateusz Ponitka, Michal Michalak, Grzegorz Grochowski, Piotr Niedzwiedzki and Tomasz Gielo finished fourth at the 2009 U16 European Championship behind Spain, Lithuania and Serbia. In 2010, they took sixth at the U18 European Championship and then seventh at the 2011 U19 World Championship after losing to eventual champions Lithuania in the quarterfinals.
Other possible medal contenders are France (2006 and 2009 silver medalists), Latvia (2007 and 2010 bronze medal winners) and 2009 bronze medalists Turkey.