The underdog teams who impressed at FIBA 3x3 World Tour return
DEBRECEN (Hungary) - 3x3 returned in Hungary with trademark unpredictability highlighting the three Masters, as numerous underdog teams stole the show.
While world No.1 Liman and No.3 Riga were unsurprising eventual winners of the Masters, the continual increase of 3x3's depth was illustrated by several exciting lower seeds making their mark to start the new World Tour season.
Let's take a look at the four teams we liked the most during the World Tour return in Hungary.
Utena Uniclub (LTU)
The new Lithuanian team made sure they were no little brother to Sakiai Gulbele, who emerged as a powerhouse on the World Tour last year after winning the Montreal Masters. On Day 1 of the new season, Utena Uniclub stunned their compatriots with a thrilling 18-17 overtime victory to knockout Sakiai.
The No.12 seed continued their fairy tale Debrecen Masters run with victories over veterans Team Amsterdam and No.3 seed Riga to setup a final against Liman. Utena fought like lions but fell short against the spectacular Serbs led by Stefan Stojacic aka 'Mr Robot' who was unstoppable.
Utena showcased they could well be an emerging power, while hot shooting Ignas Vaitkus announced himself as a 3x3 star. He had the highest average in the bubble at 8.2 points per game and finished on top of the prestigious player value per game (Points x Points/Field Goals attempted + Blocks + Key Assists + Tissot Buzzer Beaters - Turnovers + Rebounds/2).
Vaitkus is a dynamic shooter with a quick first step and, most importantly, hits clutch baskets to ensure Utena are dangerous if the game is close. He was also a force on defense and tough on the boards.
Don’t forget his name. Or Utena's.
Serbia has been the spiritual home of 3x3 over the years led by Novi Sad and Liman. But don't overlook Ub, who were formerly known as Vrbas. They always bring it and were desperately unlucky not to claim the Hungary Masters, where they lost a thriller 21-20 to Riga whom they had beaten in the pool stage.
World No. 10 Ub are a dangerous opponent because they are so well balanced. They share the load and have versatility through Ivan Popovic, Strahinja Stojacic and World Tour Miroslav Pasajlic, who came up huge with 10 points in Ub’s shock 22-19 semi-final victory over Novi Sad.
Their scintillating scoring - the only time Ub failed to reach the magical mark of 21 was in the final against Riga - in Hungary should frighten opponents because these pros have always been known as defensive masters.
Watch out Liman and Novi Sad, Ub aren't far off the pace.
The talented Swiss have always promised a lot but too often disappointed. It appeared a familiar script when they failed to make the knockout stages of the Hungary Masters even after beating Liman.
Lausanne seemed to be really missing high-flyer Natan Jurkovitz, who often gets the team going with his rim-shaking dunks.
But Lausanne clicked into gear at World Tour Europe after another victory against Liman. This time they sealed the deal and reached the quarters after a tight victory over Ulaanbaatar MMC Energy.
When Lausanne are confident they can be extremely tough. They beat Piran due to a Gilles Martin dagger but fell agonizingly short in a classic semi-final against Sakiai.
We saw the good and bad of Lausanne in Hungary but even without Jurkovitz there is a lot to like about the world No.14. Martin is faster than 5G, while Westher Molteni finished on top of the player value per game rankings for the second Masters. Jurkovitz's replacement Badara Top doesn't provide the highlights like his predecessor but brings a new toughness, especially on defense.
Throw in Lehmann's love of two-pieces, it’s little wonder why Lausanne might just be the ultimate x-factor team.
After all, they did beat Liman twice in Hungary.
You want a good stat for the World Tour return?
Lausanne - Liman: 2-0
Rest of the teams - Liman: 1-10
The Austrians might have been the biggest surprise packets in Hungary. Competing for the first time on the World Tour, No.9 seed Graz almost landed a haymaker at the Debrecen Masters by pushing Liman to the wire (20-21) and then qualified to the knockout stages by beating higher ranked Humpolec.
They nearly provided one of 3x3's biggest upsets after losing a thriller to Riga 21-18. Graz might have lost but they won plenty of admirers for their strength and determination - hallmarks that evoke the Austrian city's most famous son: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Moritz Lanegger became 'Mo Buckets' and showed he had serious talent from long range. Austria is not a traditional basketball powerhouse but 3x3 is developing quickly with next year's FIBA 3x3 Olympic Qualifying Tournament to be held in scenic Graz.
In the meantime, don't be surprised to see Graz continue to produce upsets on the World Tour.