I know that everyone's busy with their Summer plans right now, and not everyone has time to sit in front of the computer in the morning and the early afternoon to watch the Dominican Republic take on Venezuela in some awesome basketball action. But, three Olympic spots are still available, to be decided by a tournament held today through Sunday. The action will be intense, with a handful of deserving basketball teams destined to get left out.
The tournament will be held in Caracas, Venezuela, and all Games will be streamed live on FIBATV.com. The format is what you come to expect from international tournaments. Four groups of three teams play each other once, and the top two advance to a knockout tournament. The teams that advance to the final get to the Olympics, along with the winner of the third place game. That is, if you want to see real action, tune into the Quarterfinals on July 6th or the Third Place game on July 8th. Teams will literally be fighting for their Olympics lives. You can find a full schedule of events here.
I know it might not seem important with Team USA usually crushing opponents, but the world is offering better competition than ever, and, hey, it's July. We all know you want more basketball. Here's a quick breakdown of what you can expect from each team.
NBA Players: None.
Background: Greece is normally a strong basketball nation, but they fell on hard times during the 2011 Eurobasket, fielding one of the youngest rosters in recent memory. They still proved to be one of the stronger nations in Europe though, beating the able Slovenian team in the group stages. They managed to qualify by defeating the tired Serbia in the classification round, after Serbia had less than a ten hour turnaround from their last game.
Current Situation: The roster continues along the lines of the new generation of Greek basketball, though they will have Vassilis Spanoulis. In the Eurobasket, Greece struggled to get consistent offense out of Nick Calathes and Nikos Zisis, both of whom shot poorly from the field. Spanoulis offers a viable solution to this problem, and makes the Greeks more threatening overall. Still, the Greeks main strengths will be the same. They are very disciplined, pass well, and can stretch the defense with their jump shooting centers. However, they will also often get destroyed by quicker guards who tear through their zone defense, and almost always lose the rebounding battle.
Projected Finish: 1st in Group A, Defeat Venezuela in Quarter-Final, Lose to Russia in Semi-Final, Lose to Puerto Rico in 3rd Place Game. Greece barely misses out, but I just think they don't pack the scoring punch to succeed against non-European teams.
Can they challenge Team USA? No. They just don't have the athleticism to do so.
Background: Puerto Rico has always been a strong basketball nation, sometimes challenging for high places in international tournaments. But they usually struggle against nations like Brazil and Argentina, who have better big men. They're usually marked by a really creative point guard and a bunch of stiffs.
Current Situation: They have an experienced roster stacked with international tournament veterans. J.J. Barea and Carlos Arroyo make for a mean guard combo, though they'll often have trouble with bigger players. Daniel Santiago is 7'3" and plays considerably well, but he's old and not very mobile, so his minutes are limited. They've also got Andres Rodriguez, who is a decent Euroleague player who loves to shoot from beyond the arc. Despite their star power, they aren't a very deep team, and rely heavily on their main guys to produce while the peripheral players aren't placed into very specific roles. They'll struggle against teams that like to take it to the line and have a strong inside presence.
Projected Finish: 2nd in Group A, Defeat Lithuania in Quarter-Final, Lose to Macedonia in Semi-Final, Defeat Greece in 3rd Place Game. They're flawed and can be taken advantage of by Greece's guards, but when push comes to shove, I think their stars shine through and they eventually get in over Greece. P.R. usually plays better under pressure.
Can they challenge Team USA? Yes. Barea and Arroyo are quick enough to annoy the bigger Team USA guards, Balkman is a good defensive stopper, and Santiago will be more than a match for Kevin Love or Blake Griffin. Their depth could be a problem, but I could definitely see Puerto Rico pulling off an upset on a good day.
NBA Players: None
Background: Jordan has only recently come on to the international scene as a semi-legitimate contender, mainly thanks to the presence of American import Rasheim Wright. They were good enough to get into the 2010 World Championship, but were mercilessly swept in the group stages.
Current Situation: Unfortunately, Wright is no longer with the team. This leaves them with a huge scoring hole, which is to say, they will get totally destroyed by Greece and Puerto Rico. They had the ability to destroy the usually regimented Asian teams with the athleticism of Wright, the shooting of big man Zaid Abbas, and the playmaking of Sam Dahgles. But Wright was easily their biggest scorer, and without any players outside of the domestic league, they just don't stand a fighting chance.
Projected Finish: 3rd in Group A.
Can they challenge Team USA? Can you fit a square peg in a round hole?
Below: Groups B, C, and D, and How They'll Finish!
Background: Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, Lithuania has been a world basketball powerhouse, grabbing medals in both the Olympics and the Eurobasket. But despite continued success, Lithuania hasn't won an international basketball competition since 2003, and their 2011 Eurobasket run ended with a disappointing first round upset on home turf.
Current Situation: Though some would say that they'd still be hung over from their disappointing Eurobasket run, the Lithuanian team looks as strong as ever, with all of the important pieces returning and Linas Kleiza re-joining the team. They don't have a real star yet, as Linas Kleiza isn't really good enough to shoulder a team, Sarunas Jasikevicus is too old, and Jonas Valanciunas isn't developed yet. So they'll continue on the ethic of strong defense and sharing scoring among many players. Their main weakness, like the main weakness of Greece, comes when playing against quick guards or teams with a lot of athleticism.
Projected Finish: 1st in Group B, Lose to Puerto Rico in Quarter-Final. Again, they suffer from quick guards, this time of Puerto Rico.
Can they challenge Team USA?: No. Like Greece, they lack the athleticism and ability to punish Team USA's small lineup.
Background: They're sometimes a peripheral challenger in the Americas, as they had a strong team in the early 90s and mid-2000s. Generally, though, Pan-American basketball is dominated by the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Canada. They qualified by beating out the Steve Nashless Canada.
Current Situation: This team is stronger then you think, but not that strong. They've got a number of consistent scorers in David Cubillan and Oscar Torres, and they even have a good amount of athleticism with Hector Romero. The team can score and run with almost anyone, but their perimeter defense remains unbelievably poor, and will always work out to be a huge achilles heel. But they are coached by former NBA Coach Eric Musselman, so they won't be a total pushover.
Projected Finish: 2nd in Group B, lose to Greece in Quarter-Final. Greece will totally destroy them on the perimeter, and they can't destroy the Greeks on the boards.
Can they challenge Team USA?: No. Maybe for a quarter before Team USA stopped running with them.
NBA Players: None.
Background: Nigeria is a regular contender in the FIBA Africa Championship, but they'll regularly fall short to perennial winner Angola. Their biggest international achievement was getting to the Round of 16 in the 2006 World Championship.
Current Situation: This is probably the most international team of the FIBA tournament, with 12 players that play for 11 different club teams internationally (the only thing holding them back is two players who both happen to play in Germany). Regardless, the team has changed a bit since their third place finish in FIBA Africa. They've lost Michael Umeh and Ime Udoka, who both provided the ballhandling for previous teams. But they replaced them well, gaining Ike Diogu, a former NBA power forward who will solve their inside scoring and rebounding problem, and Ekene Ibekwe, a former Maryland center who will provide some great inside defense. When paired with reliable scoring forwards Derrick Obasohan and Ekene Ibekwe and athletic guard Ade Dagunduro, this will be a really talented and big team. Their obvious flaws will be a lack of distribution among the players, and a lack of familiarity on a constantly fluctuating roster.
Projected Finish: 3rd in Group B. Probably the best team to fall early, but I'll take Venezuela's talent, coaching, and teamwork over their international mish-mash.
Can they challenge Team USA?: Strategically I'd say yes, but realistically, their talent level isn't high enough.
Background: Russia has always been a strong contender in Europe after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but they haven't won an Olympic medal during their entire existence. They qualified after suffering a defeat at the hands of France in the 2011 Eurobasket Semi-Final, but they did defeat Macedonia in order to achieve the Bronze Medal.
Current Situation: Without a doubt, this is the strongest Russian team since the fall of the Soviet Union. They have all of the important players on their roster from the 2011 Eurobasket returning, including Andrei Kirilenko, Viktor Khryapa, and Vitaly Fridzon. They've also seen the addition of Alexander Kaun, who will pair with Timofey Mozgov for the toughest center duo this side of Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. They aren't a great scoring team, but they'll often pound other teams into submission with their slow pace and willingness to pound it insice.
Projected Finish: 1st in Group C, defeat Angola in Quarter-Final, defeat Greece in Semi-Final, advance to Olympics. Probably the easiest path one can possibly get in the qualifying tournament. They'll destroy Greece inside, and no one else really poses a threat to them.
Can they challenge Team USA? This is a team that has the talent level to beat the USA, but they don't match up well. I could see them beating a team like Spain, Argentina, or Brazil with their strong defense, but Team USA will run them out of the gym and force their offense out onto the perimeter.
Background: They're normally pretty terrible, and sometimes haven't even qualified for the FIBA Americas championship. But they have turned in solid performances recently at the Centrobasket, which is a competition featuring all of the Carribean and Central American countries.
Current Situation: The reason they're so good this year is because of Al Horford, Francisco Garcia, and some coaching help from John Calipari. They also had a bit of help from Charlie Villanueva in their 2011 run, but he was inconsistent, so his loss shouldn't be too much of a bad thing. They also rely quite a bit on Jack Michael Martinez, a little known power forward currently playing in Argentina. He's got a nice pull up jumper, and a good array of post moves. But other than those three, the team isn't too notable. They've got a few guys who put in minutes on legitimate European and Argentinean teams, but they don't contribute more than a few shots or decent defense. Another huge problem is that everyone on the team is forced to create for themselves on offense because they don't have a legitimate point guard, with Al Horford leading the team in assists. They're talented, but too flawed to go very far.
Projected Finish: 2nd in Group C, Lose to Macedonia in Quarter-Final. Russia is a better team down low, and Bo McCalebb is quicker then their main guards.
Can they challenge Team USA? No. Their lack of ball movement will kill them when you have a guy like Horford trying to shake LeBron.
Republic of Korea
NBA Players: None, but Eric Sandrin does play for the Seoul Samsung Thunders!
Background: They've been competitive in Asia, and have actually won FIBA Asia championships in the past. But with the recent emergence of China, Jordan, and even Japan, they haven't seen an international competition since 1998.
Current Situation: I'd be lieing if I said I knew a lot about this team. But it would take a seriously insane game of basketball for these guys to get out of the group stage. They were totally destroyed by China in the Semi-Final of the FIBA Asia Championship, and all of their players play domestically. Still, they do play a fun style, often relying on threes or forays into the lane with lots of passes. They don't have a lot of big men, and often suffer inside, mostly relying on solid team rebounding and sending the other team to the line. Still, FIBA Asia's website is terrible, so I can't give you information on any specific players. Sorry!
Projected Finish: 3rd in Group C.
Can they challenge Team USA? No more than the DPRK can challenge them in basketball.
NBA Players: None.
Background: Macedonia usually wasn't much of a factor in Europe, paling in comparison to other former Yugoslavian powerhouses like Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. But that all changed in 2011 with the arrival of Bo McCalebb, the most Macedonian guy you'll ever meet, if you've never met a Macedonia guy before. He led the team to a miracle Semi-Final appearance in the 2011 Eurobasket, defeating Lithuania on their home floor.
Current Situation: The 2011 Eurobasket team is back, and many Macedonians would consider it a disappointment if they didn't qualify for the Olympics. Bo McCalebb is pretty much the offensive basis of the team, scoring nearly a third of their points and dishing over a third of their assists in the 2011 Eurobasket. But they have other solid players as well, such as the shooting big man Pero Antic, another dead-eye shooter in Vlado Ilievski, and Predrag Samardziski, who recently took the reigns of team captain from Pero Antic. They're a solid team who can beat almost anybody, but they live and die by the three, and they'll often get out-rebounded.
Projected Finish: 1st in Group D, Defeat Dominican Republic in Quarter-Final, Defeat Puerto Rico in Semi-Final, advance.
Can they challenge Team USA?: Yes. They have the talent and no huge weaknesses against Team USA specifically, so I'd say they could. That being said, Bo McCalebb has never had to go against a Chris Paul before.
NBA Players: None.
Background: Angola has always been the usual winner of the FIBA Africa Championship. They've never had a successful NBA player, but they have a strong domestic league dominated by a handful of teams, allowing their players to become familiar with each other and play well together.
Current Situation: Angola has been in the midst of a down year. After qualifying for the Round of 16 in the FIBA World Championship, they had a disappointing showing in the FIBA Africa championship, nearly losing to Cameroon in the Quarter-Finals, and losing the Finals to Tunisia. It was the first time they had failed to achieve gold in the FIBA Africa tournament since 1997. They did, however, play the tournament without star player Olimpio Cipriano, and were playing without longtime point guard Miguel Lutonda, who had retired from the team. But Cipriano is back for the qualifying tournament, and they still play the same style of ball they always have. Nobody plays that's over 6'8", they shoot a crap ton of threes, they love to run the break, and they love to steal the ball. In other words, they're really fun to watch. And my favourite international team.
Projected Finish: 2nd in Group D, Lose to Russia in Quarter-Final. As a fan, I think they can run all over the stiff Russians and force a huge upset. But as an analyst, I know they're in a down year and just aren't as talented.
Can they challenge Team USA? No. When Team USA was a bit bigger they could run circles around them, but this Team USA is a bit sleeker, and their talent level is a lot higher. Team USA will win most matchups by a mile.
NBA Players: None
Background: This used to be a powerful team, featuring Kirk Penney, Thomas Abercrombie, and Sean Marks. They beat traditional powerhouse Australia in the 2007 and 2009 FIBA Oceania Championship, and their most memorable run came during 2002, narrowly beating Puerto Rico in the Round of 16 and advancing to the Semi-Finals of the World Championship.
Current Situation: With the departure of Kirk Penney due to injury and Thomas Abercrombie, the team doesn't stand a chance. Penney was basically the entire scoring force behind the team, while Abercrombie was second guy to go to. Without them, almost half of the team's point are gone. There are some small beacons of hope, with Mike Vukona being a decent scorer and Casey Frank banging down low, but the vast majority of the team doesn't even play in Australia/New Zealand's main league, instead playing in the New Zealand-only lower tier league. It would be a total shock to see these guys advance.
Projected Finish: 3rd in Group D.
Can they challenge Team USA? I don't think they could challenge Australia right now, much less the USA.
Who do you think will qualify for the Olympics? Do you think any of these teams could give Team USA a run for its money? Vote in the poll, post a comment!