Favorites in tough group

HAMAMATSU, Japan – It might not be the most glamorous but Group C is regarded as the toughest at the World Basketball Championships starting Saturday, with European champions Greece holding the upper hand. With a lineup that also features two-time championship winners Brazil, gifted 2003 Euro champions Lithuania, Australia, Turkey and outsiders Qatar, who comes out on top remains a lottery. The Greek side boasts 11 members of the squad that beat Germany to win the Eurobasket gold medal last year and they are tipped as a tournament favorite. Coming into Japan, they have shown impressive form, thumping Germany 84-47 on Tuesday to win the six-team Stankovic Cup in China, using their trademark teamwork, stifling defense and precision offense to great effect. Coach Panayiotis Yiannakis, whose team gets its world championship campaign under way against Qatar in Hamamatsu on Saturday, is confident his charges have what it takes to be in the medals. «The improvement of our game is clear to see, the players are moving faster and are thinking quicker,» he said. «This takes a lot of time and practice to get right and everyone is working hard.» The top four teams from the group move into the knockout rounds in Saitama with all eager to avoid finishing fourth which will pit them against the winner of Group D, which is likely be the star-studded and in-form United States. Lithuania, ranked fourth in the world, has three NBA stars anchoring its shot at the world title – New Orleans Hornet Arvydas Macijauskas, Chicago Bulls star Darius Songaila and Denver Nugget Linas Kleitza. They tip off against Turkey, keen for a winning start after losing 104-90 to Team USA in Seoul last weekend. Brazil, with NBA stars Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao among its ranks, completed their warmup with a fourth place finish at the Stankovic Cup, losing to France in the play-off. Shooting guard Marcelinho, who will be playing his third world championships, is confident of the squad’s abilities and said they will benefit from having players based in Europe and the United States. «The previous generation was made up of players who were playing in the [Brazilian] national league,» he told O Estado de Sao Paulo. «Only a few players had experience abroad. Nowadays, we have more capable players, not in individual talent but in experience.» While ranked only 28 in the world, Qatar believe they could be a surprise package in Japan, but admit they must be at their best to get through the group stage. «I think our strength is our ability to defend,» said Qatar’s American coach Joey Stiebing. «When we can defend, we will be able to compete with most teams.» Turkey has beaten France and Italy in the past fortnight and will take its chances while Australia saw off France on Sunday before narrowly losing 63-61 to China in Nanjing on Tuesday. «We came into this tournament wanting to get better and we’ve shown some things to ourselves that we didn’t know coming in. We can play anybody,» said Australia coach Brian Goorjian. «We haven’t played much together and previously I don’t think we had the belief that we could win against the top teams in the world.»

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