KAUNAS (2012 FIBA U17 World Championship) - The big question going into the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship is if the United States can defend their title from the inaugural events two summers ago. But there are a big group of challengers ready to dethrone the North Americans as champs.
The tournament tips off on Friday in Kaunas, Lithuania and the gold medals will be handed out on July 8 at Zalgiris Arena.
U.S. coach Don Showalter's team is one of the top favorites going into the second U17 Worlds as seven players return from the team that won gold convincingly at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship last summer in Cancun, Mexico.
The headliner is Jabari Parker, who was named MVP and would go on to claiming USA Basketball's 2011 Male Athlete of the Year. Parker will be joined from fellow Chicago high school stars Kendrick Nunn and Jahlil Okafor.
But Showalter, who will rely on a suffocating pressure defense, will be missing a major part to his FIBA Americas U16 golden puzzle as power forward Aaron Gordon is out with a foot injury after leading the U.S. team in scoring, rebounds and blocked shots last summer.
Despite taking 13th last summer at the FIBA Europe U16 Championship, the host side Lithuania cannot be taken lightly. Not only will they have the great support of the crowd in Kaunas, but there's plenty of talent as well.
The star of coach Paulius Juodis's team will be Edvinas Seskus, who in May won the Euroleague Junior Tournament with Lietuvos Rytas, averaging 14.8 points, 3 rebounds and 2.5 assists at the final tournament, including 17 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in the final victory over Fenerbahce Ulker.
But Lithuania are much more than just Seskus. Gediminas Zalalis is a strong big man who also won the Euroleague title - a U18 tournament - along with Deividas Kumelis and Karolis Razukas. And Lukas Grabauskas will also carry a big portion of the load for the hosts.
The 2010 bronze medalists Canada can also not be counted out. Coach David DeAveiro brings to Lithuania an ultra-balanced, deep team with five players who scored in double figures at the FIBA Americas U16s - topped by Kevin Zabo - while adding a huge 7-foot-2 low post presence in Tanveer Bhullar.
Perhaps the best player at the U17 Worlds will be Croatian superstar Mario Hezonja, but the KK Zagreb star has hardly played this season after winning the Euroleague Junior Tournament, taking gold and MVP at the FIBA Europe U16 Championship and playing at the FIBA U19 World Championship last summer.
The Dubrovnik native went down early in 2011-12 with a serious ankle injury and then was hit with a case of mononucleosis. Coach Ante Nazor hopes Hezonja will be back to his usual star self in Kaunas.
Regardless, Croatia will need more than just Hezonja to have a chance at the podium. And a big help will be Mateo Jurkovic, who played alongside Hezonja at KK Zagreb as well as Croatian star talents Dario Saric and Dominik Mavra.
Spain's hopes of a medal will rest predominantly on the shoulders of big man Ilimane Diop while Australia have a superstar-in-the-making in Dante Exum and Damien Inglis will star for France and Perhaps one of the biggest prospects at the tournament will be Chinese 7-footer Zhou Qi, who is a talented and skilled - but also very slender - big man. Qi already wowed scouts at the 2012 Albert Schweitzer Tournament - a U18 event - despite only turning 16 in mid-January.
The 12 teams are broken down into two six-nation groups - Group A: Australia, China, Czech Republic, France, Egypt and U.S.; Group B: Argentina, Canada, Croatia, Korea, Lithuania, Spain - with the top four of each group reaching the quarter-finals.