Olympics Basketball Group A Previews and Predictions
The 12-team Olympic men’s basketball tournament kicks off on Saturday, with the deepest—if not most talented—field the event has ever seen. Here is a preview of Group A, by projected order of finish:
1. United States
How they got here: Won gold at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 Worlds, have not lost since 2006 World semifinals against Greece. 52-1 since Jerry Colangelo took over the program. Pretty good run, I guess.
Key Player(s): Tempting as it is to say everyone, I’ll go with Carmelo Anthony. (WARNING: Knicks fans may want to avoid the next few sentences.) The difference between NBA Melo and FIBA Melo is shocking; in international play he is aggressive, hustles, and generally reaches a level we rarely see during the season. He was arguably team USA’s best player in ’08, and could very well be again, if the warm-up games are any indication. A bonus key player is Tyson Chandler, who is Team USA’s only consistent interior defensive player (4 more years, Anthony Davis. 4 more years.)
Best Case: The US overwhelms everyone with their athleticism, swarming defense, shooting, and just generally being better at everything, and cruises to a gold medal.
Worst Case: Everything—I repeat, EVERYTHING—goes wrong in the gold medal game against Spain, the Gasol brothers dominate inside, and team USA settles for a shocking silver in one of the bigger upsets ever.
Prediction: The rest of the world is catching up, but not fast enough. The gold medal stays where it belong
How they got here: Finished 2nd in Eurobasket 2011, and went undefeated against everyone not named Spain
Key Player(s): The French have built a roster fairly deep with NBA talent (although they will sorely miss Joakim Noah), and their depth is why I have them 2nd in Group A. Obviously this team starts and ends with Tony Parker, their do-everything point guard coming off a career year in San Antonio. Nic Batum is an ideal international player with superior athleticism and Kevin Seraphin, fresh off his NBA emergence last season with the Wizards will be France’s go-to offense in the post
Best Case: France sticks with Team USA for much of the opening game, and rides that momentum, plus their talent and firepower, all the to an upset of Spain in the semifinals and a silver medal.
Worst Case: Ronny Turiaf is unable to provide a much-needed interior defensive presence, Parker’s eye prevents him from being his normal self, and the inexperience on the rest of the roster shows itself. France crashes out in the group stage.
Prediction: The French have all the ingredients: a leader (Parker), firepower on the wings (Batum and Mickael Pietrus), and the well balanced Turiaf/Seraphin combo. The question, outside of Parker, is if they have enough of these ingredients. The French will show some uncharacteristic toughness in navigating an easier Group A, but likely won’t make it past the tough 3rd place team from Group B in the quarterfinals.
How they got here: Went 8-1 en route to the 2011 FIBA Americas championship, beating Brazil in the final.
Key Player(s): Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola are the stars, but this team’s real key is its continuity. This is likely the last run for Argentina’s golden generation of ballplayers, who can count Olympic and World Championship gold among their achievements. Carlos Delfino and Pablo Prigioni add to the depth on the perimeter, and Andre Nocioni does the dirty work for team Argentina, but this team truly is more than the sum of their parts.
Best Case: Argentina does not want to go quietly, and each player on the team knows exactly what role they have to fill to succeed. Role players like Juan Gutierrez are not necessarily top-level talents, but it all fits together for veteran coach Julio Lamas and his crew. The Argentines execute to perfection and use their trademark scrappiness—on display in the narrow 6-point loss to the US—to earn a Silver medal.
Worst Case: Despite the continuity, the Argentines cannot overcome their lack of athleticism or quickness, and it becomes clear their time has passed. Ginobili and Scola carry them through to the quarterfinals, but they bow out quietly from there.
Prediction: Argentina does not have nearly as much talent as the USA or Spain, but they have all the intangibles, and 2 playmakers in Scola and Ginobili who have been through it all. I think they make it to the podium, but they won’t be able to overcome the drop off in talent after the top 2.
How they got here: Beat the Dominican Republic in the semifinals of the Olympic qualifying tournament last month in Venezuela
Key Player(s): Lithuania is a similar case to Argentina; as a team their best days are clearly behind them, but the Lithuanian’s have saved up for one more run with their established crop of players. One major difference between the two teams is also the key for the Eastern Europeans: young stud Center Jonas Valanciunas. The 5th pick in the 2011 NBA draft is the youngest player on this team by almost 6 years, but is also the most talented. However these will be the most important games of his life, and it remains unclear how he will respond. He will have experienced guards Sarunas Jasikevicius and Darius Songaila to lead the way, but Valanciunas will need to be at his absolute best for Lithuania to medal.
Best Case: Valanciunas is at his best, guiding Lithuania through the group stage in the top 3 (to avoid Spain). Jonas and the guard then keep the knockout stage games close until the end, where the playmaking Linas Kleiza has always thrived. Behind Jonas inside, Kleiza’s big shots and a barrage of threes, Lithuania medals.
Worst Case: Valanciunas can’t stay out of foul trouble, and Lithuania’s guards prove too old to compete with the increasing athleticism of the rest of the group. Kleiza gets frustrated and shoots the team right out of their game against Nigeria, and Lithuania suffers a shock group exit.
Prediction: There is simply too much experience on this team for the above worst-case scenario to happen, but Lithuania no longer has the talent to compete with the world’s top teams. Spain will calmly usher them out in the quarterfinals.
How they got here: Unquestionably the Cinderella story of the qualification campaign, Nigeria upset Lithuania, Greece and the Dominican Republic en route to capturing the third and final Olympic spot at the pre Olympic qualifying tournament.
Key Player(s): Nigeria’s roster is home to a number of players whose names sound vaguely familiar. Throughout qualification, the key contributors were Ike Diogu—a former Arizona State standout and the team’s main established playmaker—and the hyper-athletic Al Farouq Aminu. But the key to this team moving forward may be guard Tony Skinn. His tough, downright annoying defense gave opponents fits in Venezuela, and he showed poise in running the offense. He moves too fast at times, but that’s to be expected of any overachieving, energetic point. Plus, Skinn has experience in being a part of a Cinderella run, having started on George Mason’s historic Final 4 team. Most will be quick to dismiss Nigeria’s chances of a respectable showing here, but they may be the most underrated team in the field.
Best Case: The Nigerians keep up the impressive form they showed at the qualifying tournament, using athleticism and energy to turn games into scrappy up and down affairs, and sneak into the knockout stage in an historic upset for the African side.
Worst Case: “Athleticism” and “energy” turn into “out of control” and “inexperience.” Nigeria exits the 2012 Olympics winless.
Prediction: It is hard not to root for these guys if you watch them, but excitement can only take an undermanned, inexperienced roster so far. They win get a historic win against Tunisia, but no more.
How they got here: Upset continental powers Angola in the Afrobasket championship game to clinch their first ever Olympic appearance.
Key Player(s): Sporting the only roster devoid of NBA talent, there is not really a key player to speak of. One name worth noting is Salah Mejri, who earned MVP honors at Afrobasket. The 7’1 Mejri has NBA summer league experience, and as they say you can’t teach size. If Tunisia can keep some games close it will be due in large part to Mejri, who could see his stock rise similarly to how current Memphis Grizzly Hamed Haddadi’s did in Beijing with Iran. Experienced point guard Marouan Kechrid will also play an important role in keeping the Tunisians composed.
Best Case: Uh, they have fun? Although this group of players has been together for awhile, it is hard to see them competing in this tournament. They have absolutely no expectation heading into their first ever Olympics, but it will no doubt be a great experience. An upset win against Nigeria is possible, but unlikely.
Worst Case: The Tunisians find that their roster is simply not talented enough to compete with this top-level international competition, and have no real matchups to exploit. 5 games, 5 blowouts.
Prediction: Tunisia may keep a couple games close for the first half, but more than anything else will use this as a learning experience. They struggle with this talent disparity and go 0-5, with no games competitive after halftime.