LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Spain is favored to win a third straight European basketball championship despite losing plenty in size by the absence of Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka and the shooting of Juan Carlos Navarro when the 24-team tournament starts on Wednesday.
Spain will rely on Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio to become the first winner of three straight European titles since Yugoslavia in 1977. Their campaign begins against Croatia in Celje. Two years ago in Lithuania, the Gasol brothers were a huge presence under the basket, while Navarro added 27 points in the 98-85 victory over France in the final.
France is back with Tony Parker, but is missing some of its own big men, including Joakim Noah. The tournament features 24 teams for the first time, split into four groups in four Slovenian cities — Ljubljana, Jesenice, Koper and Celje. The final two rounds are in the capital of Ljubljana.
In Group A in Ljubljana, France opens its campaign on Wednesday against Germany, which is without Dirk Nowitzki and has brought in a young, untested side. Group B in Jesenice features Lithuania, with its two NBA big men, Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas.
Lithuania is rebuilding after being upset by Macedonia in the quarterfinals at home two years ago. The Lithuanians will get to know where they stand when they open against Serbia, another unknown entity coming in with a young team featuring NBA first-round pick Nemanja Nedovic.
Lithuania will also run into Macedonia again in a group that is a Balkan-Baltic showdown. Other teams are Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia and Montenegro, which is without Nikola Pekovic but with the NBA center Nikola Vucevic.
Spain heads Group C, while Group D features Greece, a balanced team playing stifling defense. Vassilis Spanoulis led Olympiakos to two consecutive Euroleague titles and hopes to deliver a medal for Greece for the first time since the bronze in 2009.
The tournament also serves as qualifying for next year's World Cup in Spain. The top six teams, aside from Spain, will qualify. Spain is already qualified as host. NBA center Marc Gasol and playmaker Rubio are Spain's standouts but the defending champion also has newcomers and a new coach in Juan Orenga.
Most experts see France as Spain's biggest challenger again. But with Noah, Kevin Seraphin and Ronny Turiaf deciding to sit out, France has lost some NBA muscle. Coach Vincent Collet still has NBA swingman Nicolas Batum and former NBA forward Mickael Gelabale.
Parker led the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA finals and the guard is as keen as ever to finally lift the European title.