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Ibaka now part of Spain's ruling ambition

PANEVEZYS, Lithuania -- Oklahoma City already knows Serge Ibaka can be a supreme X factor. Now it's Europe's turn. With basketball's European Championship tournament -- otherwise known as EuroBasket -- continuing Thursday in Lithuania, the Thunder center finds himself with an unusual burden of expectation on his shoulders to make a genuine impact.

Naturalized as a Spanish citizen just months ago by a special decree from the country's government, the Congo-born 21-year-old now will be asked to repay the favor by helping his adopted country retain the title it won in Poland two years ago.

Spain was then the world champion as well, the undisputed challenger to American dominance. Last summer in Turkey, the USA took away its global crown as Pau Gasol, resting after the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA championship run, watched from the sidelines.

The elder Gasol has returned for 2011, joining brother Marc, prospective Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Ricky Rubio and Raptors guard Jose Calderon in their NBA contingent. Add Euroleague star and former Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro, and many have questioned the need to recruit from outside. But Ibaka's colleagues know what he can bring to the table.

"I've had no problem getting integrated," he said. "All my teammates have made me really welcome."

Distractions have, by necessity, been kept to a minimum as the Spaniards eye not only a run at a repeat title but also one of the two automatic qualification berths for next year's Olympic Games, which will be awarded to the teams that contest the final in Kaunas on Sept. 18.

"That we're considered the favorites can sometimes be a problem but the important thing is that we concentrate from the start," Ibaka said. "We're ambitious and we want to go for gold. That's our objective, and we can achieve it. But we also know that it's going to be complicated."

Their route will have the hardest start in the toughest of the competition's four first-round groups. Turkey, fresh off reaching the world championship final on home soil, has had an inconsistent buildup but has had glimpses of brilliance from Utah Jazz draftee Enes Kanter as well as from the familiar hands of Hedo Turkoglu.

Lithuania is suffering from the injury-enforced absence of Toronto forward Linas Kleiza but will be boosted by an all-encompassing home support.

Great Britain, spearheaded by Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng and Blazers draftee Joel Freeland, carries a threat.

And although Poland -- which lost Marcin Gortat due to the insurance issues caused by the NBA lockout -- and Portugal will be long shots to make any impact, the Spanish have checked their swagger at the door.

"In a Eurobasket, every team respects everyone else," said Spain's Marc Gasol, whose team opened its Group A with an 83-78 win against Poland in Panevezys. "This is a championship where a lot of teams are in play and where it's going to be even."

It is a similar tale in Group B, which features Serbia (silver medalist two years ago), along with Italy, France and Germany (all potential semifinalists) as well as Israel and Latvia.

Just three teams from each pool will advance to next week's second round. Dirk Nowitzki's determination to lead German's young side to another Olympics has brought him back into the international fold. Italy will rely on the trio of Marco Belinelli, Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bargnani.

France has been installed as a secondary favorite with the availability of five of its NBA players, including -- for the first time -- Bulls center Joakim Noah.

"I'm not really sure what's awaiting me but I know that as a group, we're hungry," said Noah, who had 10 points and seven rebounds in France's 89-78 win over Latvia. "We want to show up and prove ourselves. We're going to stay together and live this. It's exciting."

Greece will be favored to win Group C, a localized affair that includes Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Finland. Russia, bringing back Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko from international exile, looks to be the strongest side in Group D, which includes 2009 semifinalist Slovenia, plus Belgium, Georgia, Bulgaria and a Ukraine team coached by Mike Fratello.

Familiar names will impress. New faces will step forward. Ibaka can become Spain's new hero. Others will have ambitions to make marks of their own.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh whose work appears regularly in British publications.