By Jeff Taylor
Montenegro have been causing a buzz in European basketball the past two years but they'll find it extremely tough going in their bid to reach the EuroBasket in Lithuania following Saturday's draw for the qualifying games.
Dusko Vujosevic's team have ended up in Group A, arguably the hardest of the three pools, alongside Italy, Israel, Latvia and an emerging Finland.
The first-place team in each of the five-team groups will qualify for the EuroBasket, along with the two best-placed second-place teams.
Montenegro, who swept all before them in Division B, have the outstanding Panathinaikos center Nikola Pekovic, who averaged 18.1 points and 5.9 rebounds in the Montenegrins' unbeaten run in Division B.
They have a host of other talents, yet they will encounter teams with rich histories in Europe.
One such national side is Italy, the EuroBasket winners in 1999, bronze medalists four years later in Sweden and silver-medalists at the 2004 Olympics.
The Italians will be looking to make it back to the Final Round following the recent appointment of Montepaschi Siena coach Simone Pianigiani as their national team boss.
Pianigiani, who replaced long-time serving Carlo Recalcati, is expected to have his NBA trio of Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari next summer.
Israel, who are now coached by Arik Shivek, should get a significant boost in the shape of Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year in the NBA.
Casspi is averaging 12.7 points and five rebounds per game for the Kings.
The Latvians played at last year's EuroBasket but failed to progress to the Qualifying Round after just one win and they have yet to appoint a new coach following Kestutis Kemzura's decision not to continue with the side.
Finland gave a very good account of themselves in the Additional Qualifying Round and under coach Henrik Dettman will be eager to return to the court.
In Group B are Hungary and Ukraine, two sides that had to play in the Relegation Round last year.
They face hard games against Bosnia and Herzegovina, F.Y.R. of Macedonia and a Great Britain side that expects to have Luol Deng back.
Chicago Bulls star Deng missed last year's EuroBasket through injury but is having terrific season with Chicago, averaging 17.6 points, along with and career-high averages in rebounds (7.4) and blocked shots (1.1).
Poland, the team that hosted last year's EuroBasket, are in Group C and will like their chances of making it back to the EuroBasket if center Marcin Gortat plays.
The Poles, who are also yet to name a coach after parting ways with Muli Katzurin, will go up against Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria and newly-promoted Georgia.
Bulgaria, a team Poland defeated at the EuroBasket, recently announced that Pini Gershon is no longer the coach of the team.
They have yet to announce his replacement.
Both the Belgians and Portuguese were tough competitors in the Additional Qualifying Round, with Belgium ultimately losing to France over two legs in the Final of the AQR.
The 10 teams that do not qualify will play in the Additional Qualification/Relegation Round.
The first six teams, according to the ranking, will play in two groups of three for one spot in the Final Round.
The four last-place teams will play in one group for two Relegation spots in Division B.
Group A: Finland, Italy, Latvia, Montenegro and Israel
Group B: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Hungary, F.Y.R. of Macedonia, Ukraine and Great Britain
Group C: Belgium, Portugal, Poland, Georgia and Bulgaria