The tournament stage is upon us, and now that jockeying for position is over, we can finally see some real sudden-death basketball being played. Team USA is still the overwhelming favourite, but challenges abound, and as the NCAA Tournament tells us every year, anything can happen while playing this wonderful game.
Matchup 1: Team USA vs. Australia
Time: 4:15 PM CST
A1. Team USA
Record: 5-0 (Def. France, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lithuania, Argentina)
How They've Done So Far: The star-studded Team USA, given the results of their early matches, looks like it has little reason to worry about a loss in the 2012 Olympics. The strongest team in their group, France, proved to be no challenge at all, and the old guard in Argentina couldn't keep it together after the first half. The only real challenge, surprisingly, came from Lithuania, who used their unselfish mentality to get open space in the lane for the bigs, and a surprisingly effective zone defense to keep Team USA out of the paint. But Team USA got the victory, thanks to some clutch play from LeBron James.
Outlook: Team USA will pretty easily get out of the first round, since the areas Australia uses to succeed (decent rebounding, good play in the open floor) are areas that Team USA can eclipse them in. But a Semi-Final against Argentina would be interesting, at least, as would a final against Russia, Spain, or Lithuania. If Team USA is to win this tournament it really comes down to whether they can run a consistent offense and keep the paint closed. Sometimes they run too many isolation plays and miss bad shots, and sometimes they bunch on the wrong side of the floor and let the other team get open shots. Either way, they're still the odds on favorites, and any loss would be a gigantic upset.
Record: 3-2 (Def. China, Great Britain, Russia, Lost to Spain, Brazil)
How They've Done So Far: After two close initial losses to Spain and Brazil, Australia really impressed with their three later games, running over China and Great Britain before upsetting a strong Russian team. Nobody paid much attention to Australia going into this tournament, but the fact is, they lost their game against Spain by only 12 points, and their game against Brazil by only four. Their initial strengths appeared to be outside shooting and running the floor, and it seemed like they'd turn out to be a very gimmicky team. But they proved to be good in areas you wouldn't think they were good at, such as rebounding, stealing, and taking care of the ball. Patty Mills was also a huge boon, tying with Pau Gasol for the best scorer in the tournament so far.
Outlook: That being said, this team is still flawed. They don't have an excellent half-court offense, and they lack a serious threat down low. Their excessive pressuring leaves opposing shooters open, and yadda yadda. Point is, there's no way in heck they'll get past team USA. They're very much in the same mold, and they don't have the tools to beat Team USA on the open floor or in the rebounding game. Still, if this team had Andrew Bogut and Nathan Jawai....oh man.....
Below: The Three Other Matchups!
Matchup 2: Brazil vs. Argentina
Time: 2:00 PM CST
Record: 4-1 (Def. Australia, Great Britain, China, Spain, Lost to Russia)
How They've Done So Far: Brazil, all things considered, had a pretty strong showing in Group B. The win against Spain was basically a farce, since Spain sat their players in the fourth quarter of that game. They also probably struggled a bit too much in their wins against China and Great Britain. But they have won four games, and nobody can deny them that. Leandro Barbosa has been essential for them in the clutch, and they draw on their NBA-experienced guys for strong post defense. They take care of the ball on offense, and tend to look for crafty ways to score around the basket, rather than toughing it out and getting fouled.
Outlook: Their main flaw is that, despite their NBA experience and size, they can't rebound at all. They'll lose the battle of the boards during most games, and have to rely on their excellent scoring to keep them in games, which pretty much shows why they couldn't close out bad opponents. I could see them getting out of the first round, but given how Team USA dominates the boards, I just don't see Brazil getting past them.
Record: 3-2 (Def. Lithuania, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lost to France, Team USA)
How They've Done So Far: Argentina ended Group A play with a bad loss, but they were playing without Pablo Prigioni, who's suffering from kidney stones. But you couldn't say the same about their loss to France, where they had a variety of things wrong with them.
Outlook: No matter how you slice it, this team's problems fluctuate wildly between games. So it's hard to pin all of their problems in one particular area. That being said, it's pretty easy to pin the team's problems on two less tangible areas: Age and depth. This team once had Walter Herrmann and Fabricio Oberto to bring off of the bench, but now the bench mainly consists of guys who just aren't that good. If the bench is in, the team will shoot a lot of threes and stand pat defensively. At the same time, the starters can have lulls in productivity, killing the team when they need it least. Anyway, I could see this team losing in the first round or winning the gold medal. It really just depends on whether the old guard are up for one last battle.
Matchup 3: France vs. Spain
Time: 10:15 AM CST
Record: 4-1 (Def. Argentina, Lithuania, Tunisia, Nigeria, Lost to Team USA)
How They've Done So Far: After getting obliterated against Team USA, France has actually emerged strong from Group A, ably beating Argentina and Lithuania. There was some concern about Tony Parker going in, as he had to have surgery to remove a piece of glass from his eye before the Olympics, and had poor performances early on. But he seems to have fully recovered, and is ready to lead his team into the tournament.
Outlook: France has the talent to win this tournament, but their game has some pretty serious holes in it. Without Joakim Noah, they have taken a serious hit in the rebounding department, which used to be a strength. However, Ali Traore and Kevin Seraphin have done a good job of filling in the post scoring duties, while Ronny Turiaf provides some pretty serious post defense. But the team has struggled from beyond the arc, and because of their fast pace, they chuck up a lot of shots. This can be problematic, especially when their rebounding isn't up to scratch. Despite their problems. This is where I think they'll really be hurt by Spain. Spain has struggled from beyond the arc and Juan Carlos Navarro isn't himself, but they're still going to win the rebounding battle, and they have the ability to beat France in other areas. So I doubt France will get beyond the rematch of the 2011 Eurobasket Final, but if they do, they could probably beat anybody....but Team USA.
Record: 3-2 (Def. China, Australia, Great Britain, Lost to Russia, Brazil)
How They've Done So Far: Their loss to Russia had to be disheartening. They needed the win to secure a top seed in Group B, and it came off of the heels of a very narrow win against Great Britain. The Brazilian loss was a farce, but Spain is still looking very beatable going into the Tournament.
Outlook: The team has a few notable flaws. Their three point shooting was lacking in big games, which could hurt them if things turn into a shooting contest. They will get destroyed by anybody in the big man positions who can shoot, because neither Gasol is quick enough to get out to the perimeter. Lastly, they haven't gotten great production from some of their marquee guards, like Juan Carlos Navarro, who is recovering from an ankle injury. But they're so incredibly good in other areas, like getting to the line, rebounding, stealing, and scoring in the post, that it's hard to see them losing against a team like France. They could beat Lithuania or Russia in the Semi-Finals, but I just couldn't see them beating Team USA's small lineup.
Matchup 4: Russia vs. Lithuania
Time: 8:00 AM CST
Record: 4-1 (Def. Great Britain, China, Brazil, Spain, Lost to Australia)
How They've Done So Far: The tournament stage couldn't have gone better for them. They had a close loss to Australia, but it was totally meaningless. Granted, the two matchups that were important, against Brazil and Spain, came down to the wire. But Russia showed great late game management in both situations. They don't just hand it off to one guy and let him waggle around. They pass the ball around and get a good shot, and are careful not to commit a bad foul on defense. In other words, David Blatt has led this team places.
Outlook: Russia, in my opinion, is the favourite team to take down Team USA. They have a very deep team and a great ability to distribute the ball on offense. They usually have two big men in the game, and one of them is capable of shooting the ball. They do commit turnovers, but so does Lithuania. And they score just as well as any other team in the tournament, sporting a balanced attack that can really take off if they're hitting threes in the back court. In other words, this team is basically Lithuania with a decent front line and better shooters, which is scary to think about. Then again, they do have to beat Lithuania first, which will be a challenge, and they'll have to beat Spain or France, which is even a greater challenge. But I think they've proven that they can beat anybody in this tournament.
Record: 2-3 (Def. Nigeria, Tunisia, Lost to Argentina, France, Team USA)
How They've Done So Far: Lithuania had a pretty terrible group stage overall, barely able to squeak out a win over Tunisia and getting destroyed against Argentina and France. But, thanks to some matchup advantages, they were able to seriously challenge Team USA, even utilizing their underwhelming front line to their full potential.
Outlook: Because of that challenge, Lithuania could be a popular upset pick heading into the tournament. And, all things considered, they could beat Russia on a good day. But they basically play the same type of game, and they don't have the post defense they once had with the loss of Robertas Javtokas. And they don't have the athleticism to challenge any potential later challenges against Spain, France, or Team USA. Lithuania is really suceptible to quick guards who can shoot, and all of those teams have the McCalebb-like player to exploit that hole. It would be a nice story to see the upstart Lithuanians beat Russia on the 20th anniversary of their win against them in the Olympics 20 years ago, but it's kind of a longshot at this point.
How do you think the tournament stage will go? Who's your pick to win it all? Let us know by voting in the poll, or posting a comment!