The 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Men tips off in Venezuela today at 11am local time (11.30am EST, 5.30pm CET) with the Russia-South Korea match. Of the 12 national teams competing, four are European. The last of BallinEurope’s previews of these qualifiers features an assessment of Lithuania.

Roster: Tomas Delininkaitis, Paulius Jankūnas, Mantas Kalnietis (Žalgiris Kaunas); Deividas Dulkys (Florida State University); Simas Jasaitis (Lokomotiv Kuban); Šarūnas Jasikevičius (Panathinaikos); Adas Juškevičius (BC Rūdupis); Rimantas Kaukėnas, Jonas Mačiulis (Montepaschi Siena); Antanas Kavaliauskas (VEF Rīga); Linas Kleiza (Toronto Raptors); Martynas Pocius (Real Madrid); Darius Songaila (CB Valladolid); Jonas Valančiūnas (Lietuvos Rytas); head coach Kęstutis Kemzūra (Team Lithuania)

How they got here: As hosts of Eurobasket 2011, expectations in hoops-mad Lithuania were high for the home side. Right from the pre-tournament friendlies, however, the roster appeared weird at best and utterly out of sync at worst.

On paper, Lietuva even seemed to have upgraded the bronze medal-winning squad from the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Out were Jonas Mačiulis, Martynas Gecevičius, Tadas Klimavičius and Martynas Andriuškevičius; in were Ksistof Lavrinovic, Jonas Valanciunas, Marijonas Petravicius, Rimantas Kaukenas and Darius Songaila. In general, that’s trading up, right? Sure, the 2010 team’s sole NBA representative Linas Kleiza wouldn’t play in the tourney due to knee injury, but Saras was back.

On paper. But a closer look at that paper revealed the 2011 version of Team Lithuania’s simple glaring lack with just one natural no. 3 on the entire roster amid a crowd of talented point guards and ultra-talented big men: Jasaitis.

(Incidentally, the mention of Songaila to a Lithuanian fan gets an eye-roll the majority of the time. BiE wonders why that is…)

But. Despite the fact that this side will be remembered as a disappointment, the reality is that Team Lithuania performed admirably well given the limitations. So they were shut down by the Spanish machine despite a gritty, gutsy game played by Valanciunas against Serge Ibaka and the Gasol Boys. And they threw a winnable one away against France in the second round with 16 turnovers against 15 assists – too few proper small forwards, eh?

Sadly, the Lithuanians were ultimately assailed by a truth of the compelling underdog story: Somebody must lose to the plucky ones. In 2011, that was Lithuania, whose loss to FYR Macedonia dumped them into the 5-8 pool, from which they emerged on top and into this tournament.

What they’ve done recently: Team Lithuania traditionally plays a heavy schedule of friendlies before such an international tournament; this combination of 2010 and 2011 teams got in a handful of games in June as well. The verdict? As reported here via Lithuania Basketball, there are worries in Lietuva as the team went 1-3 against mostly solid competition.

In the Russia-Lithuania friendly in Houston on June 27, a 37-35 lead into halftime turned into a 77-68 loss after Team Lithuania struggled in the third quarter; some nice efforts were contributed by Valanciunas (12 points, eight rebounds), Kleiza (12 points), Mačiulis (11 points) and Kaukenas (11 points).

(image courtesy LithuaniaBasketball.com)Back on June 17 against Greece in Lithuania, woes in the second quarter killed the home team after they’d controlled the first quarter. Points came tough to Lietuva through the second and third quarters and four players – Kleiza, Kalnietis, Jankunas and Delininkaitis – top-scored with just 10 apiece. The day previous, Team Lithuania managed to stay in the game against Lietuvos Rytas’ Predrag Samardziski and FYR Macedonia, but lost 78-74.

Even Lithuania’s sole win in June was fodder for pessimism: A way-too-tight 63-61 win over Team Britain. (An aside. Take a look at the pic from the game originally posted on Lithuania Basketball; what was the attendance for that one, do you suppose…?)

On the plus side: The Lithuanians holding the Brits to just seven points in the fourth quarter; Jasikevicius taking control of the offense in crunch time; notable performances by Saras (12 points), Valanciunas (12 points, eight rebounds) and Jankunas (13 points). On the minus side: Lithuania trailing 54-53 going in and managing just 10 points in the final 10 minutes against what should be an inferior defense.

But they’ve been practicing with Sabas, surely the only basketball federation president actually willing to get on the floor with his national team!

Weaknesses: BiE’s gonna go with injuries. Renaldas Seibutis was knocked off the national team roster for the qualifying tournament early – is this a harbinger of Lithuania’s biggest recent rival, i.e. the injury bug, that has cost them dearly in the past?

Outlook: Group B pits Lithuania against Nigeria and hosts Venezuela. BiE admits to not knowing much about Team Nigeria, though most recently against Olympic-level competition, they lost to Greece, were thumped by Brazil and topped New Zealand in turn in late July.

Assuming Lietuva tops Nigeria, the path to the finals doesn’t get any easier. They’ll be looking to take on Greece or Puerto Rico in the first knockout game, unenviable matchups both. Should Lithuania win B and once more against, say, Puerto Rico in round one, a rematch with FYR Macedonia would appear to be in the cards.

Now. Lithuania has traditionally shown they *can* compete on any given day. With this team looking better on paper – and with a proper depth chart, too – there’s no way these guys could possibly fall to the upstarts again, is there? The Official BallinEurope Fearless Prediction™, then: BiE’ll take Lithuania all the way through to the final game in the qualifying tournament for a meeting with Russia.

Bonus: Says Y., BallinEurope’s agent in Lithuania: “I think I’m predicting doom for our national team, which is not reaching the Olympic semis. We should make through the tournament, I believe, although it should become nerve intensive. Remember, we made it through [Eurobasket 2011] just because of a run and thanks to a three by Mantas Kalnietis, of all people.

“I think we’ll make it through, and I would say we’ll get a 3rd-4th seed in group play to get a top dog in quarters … and then the doom.”

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