Updated: Jul 19
When: Wednesday July 19th
Where: Opatija, Croatia
How to watch: Delayed coverage of the game is on TG4 at 7.15pm
For the first time in just over a year, Ireland’s Senior Men are back in competitive action as they face group favourites Croatia to kick off their FIBA Eurobasket Pre-Qualifier Round 3 campaign. The game is the first in of four in a three team mini-pool featuring Ireland, Luxembourg and Croatia. Only the winners will qualify from the group.
What to expect from Ireland
Mark Keenan has named an exciting young squad that will feature top NCAA talent like Aidan Igiehon (Grand Canyon) , CJ Fulton (College of Charleston) and Sam Alajiki (Rice).
Included in the young stars is a potential Irish debutant in Neal Quinn. The 7-footer was a teammate of CJ Fulton in Lafayette before becoming a graduate transfer to the Richmond Spiders.
Quinn will be expected to contribute immediately for Mark Keenan and definitely has the potential to be a foundational piece for Ireland over the coming years. The big man can pass well from the high post, score and provide size on the interior. It will be interesting to watch as Keenan balances up the athleticism that Igiehon brings with the size and skill that Quinn offers. It’s unlikely they’ll play too much together so it will come down to which style is more effective on a game by game basis.
A big question for Ireland will be how effective captain John Carroll can be coming off a year long injury. Carroll is a really smart and skilled player and wont force anything, but Ireland need him to be assertive and to shoot the ball well if they are to compete. In the past Carroll played alongside Jordan Blount and again it will be interesting to watch lineups for Ireland and see if Carroll and Blount will job share the four position or if we’ll see Blount also play at the three when Taiwo Badmus rests.
Speaking of Badmus, he has been Ireland’s best player in recent games and plays at the highest level of any of our professionals. Badmus helped his Icelandic team win a championship last season as he averaged 15 points a game.
At the point guard spot, Ireland have options with CJ Fulton, Sean Flood and Paul Dick. Paul has been injured in the past and missed out on previous Eurobasket campaigns, so his return Is a major boost for Ireland. Dick has the size and ability to get in the lane more effectively than any other Irish guard. His attacking ability will lessen the load on Taiwo Badmus and Jordan Blount to beat people off the dribble and gives Ireland a much greater balance. Additionally, his presence allows Sean Flood to be a floor spacer and secondary attack threat which is probably when he is at his best.
For Ireland to be competitive they will have to find a way to get into the lane effectively to generate good looks. This is often easier said than done at international level against the length and speed of professionals. Croatia hedged aggressively and also switched pick and rolls in recent games against China. If they switch Ireland have to be able to take advantage of mismatches and attach. Dick and Quinn can both do this. Defensively, Ireland’s bigs will have to be solid and survive on the boards. Croatia have excellent bigs, particularly at the 4 but Ireland hopefully have enough size and athleticism to keep things competitive.
Ireland lost both warm up games away to Switzerland but they were much better in their second game and will look to be competitive on Wednesday night.
What to expect from Croatia
It’s a period of major adjustment for Croatia as they begin a new qualifying campaign. They have a new coach and only three players remain from their Eurobasket 2022 campaign. Those three players were at the end of the bench watching the likes of Bojan Bogdanovich, Dario Saric, Ivica Zubac and Mario Herzonja and much more will be expected of them this time around.
Preparations have gone well to date with wins over China and Slovakia over the past ten days. Both games have seen a tight first half before Croatia’s depth helped them win out comfortably. Below are some of China's highlights against Croatia which will give fans an insight into what to expect.
Who to watch for:
Roko Badžim: Roko is a 6’5 combo guard who plays in the Turkish league for AYOS Konyaspor. He was part of a very strong underage Croatian team that won Bronze at the U18 European Championships and Silver at the U19 World Championships. Badzim is a former Rising Star in the Basketball Champions League and his mix of shooting ability and playmaking will be a major concern for Mark Keenan. Ireland have struggled with shooters and big guards in the past so this is definitely one to watch.
Dario Dreznjak: the 6’8 power forward plays for Zadar in the Croatian league and helped them win the Championship this season. He top scored (13) against China in their recent warm up game and was also amongst the top scorers against Slovakia (12). He’ll stretch the floor as a good outside shooter but he’s also athletic enough to go finish at the rim. He’ll be a tough match up for Ireland and one we will have to be disciplined with.
Kresimir Ljubicic: The 7 foot big man will be a handful inside for Ireland with his size alone. Playing for CIbona in the Croatian and ABA leagues Ireland will need to keep him on the move defensively and off the boards both ends.
Roko Prkačin: At just 20 Prkačin is one of the most exciting players on the Croatian squad. The 6’8 four man plays for Girona in the ACB. The exciting prospect has been on Croatian fans radar for a long time having won MVP of the FIBA U16 European Championships and made his debut for the senior team at age 18. His athleticism and overall skillset saw him initially enter the NBA draft before withdrawing and last season he was nominated for the best young player in the ACB league. He’s definitely one to watch
Ireland have played Croatia in qualification in the past. A narrow loss in Dublin was one of the major regrets of the Jim Moran, Marty Conlon and Jay Larranaga era as they couldn’t contain NBA star Gordon Giricek in Tallaght. Winning by double digits going into the fourth it was one of the biggest what if moments in the National Team’s rise in the early 2000s as the lost 78-76 (check out the stats here https://archive.fiba.com/pages/eng/fa/game/p/gid/5/grid/C/rid/3413/sid/3412/tid/305/_/2003_European_Championship_for_Men/statistic.html) .Ireland’s assistant coach Adrian Fulton played that night in 2001 as one of only two Irish born players to feature. There are no NBA players on show for either side this time and it’s very much a home grown side that will represent Ireland now.
Croatia are 26.5 point favourites for this game and for good reason. Of Ireland's key contributors only Badmus and Dick are over 28. Mark Keenan's selection of Neal Quinn as the naturalized player speaks to a future that this team is trying to build. Winning in Croatia is likely out of reach but a positive performance is something Irish fans can still hope for.