Friday, August 8, 2008

Men's Olympic Basketball Preview

In the old days, the USA only had to turn up to win on the basketball court but how quickly things change. For the first time since NBA players were allowed to compete, the USA enters the Olympic Games not as defending champions, but as challengers.
Will they be able to return to the top of the pecking order ? Or are the other countries now widening the international gap ?
Let’s have a look and see.

Group A
Croatia, Iran, Lithuania, Argentina, Russia, Australia

It will be tough for defending Olympic champions Argentina to repeat their Athens triumph in 2004. Juan ‘Pepe’ Sanchez is no longer with the team and depending on who you talk to, their best player, Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili is carrying an injured ankle into this tournament. In NBA-ers Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino(until last season at least) and Andreas Nocioni, they still have plenty of top quality talent and but this year Bronze is probably their best hope for a medal. Prediction: Fourth

Australia’s pre-tournament warm up games were impressive. After defeating host nation China, they lost to Argentina after leading by 19 points at one stage and got closer to beating the USA than anyone else before losing by 11. They are an experienced team with an experienced coach though any thought of a medal is unlikely. A top 6 finish is certainly within reach. Prediction: Seventh

The name JR Holden doesn’t immediately conjure up images of the stereotypical Russian basketball player, but the USA born star is now a fully-fledged Russian. Well passport holder anyway. The Utah Jazz’s Andrei Kirilenko’s long, gangly arms allow him to cover more territory than most on the defensive end, but his offensive game still needs work, but he is this team’s leader. The Russians are always well organized and rely on solid tactics and if anyone is going to gatecrash this party, it’s them. Prediction: Fifth

Like the ‘Russian’, JR Holden, basketball isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when Iran is mentioned. Nevertheless, they’ve qualified for Beijing so they have done something right. So little is known about the Iranians that it’s hard to see them getting beyond the group stage. They have one player who should stand out, the 7’5” Jaber Rouzbahani but that’s about the only thing we’re going to remember about them.
Prediction: Won’t progress past the group stage

Lithuania continues to produce solid NBA players and once again brings an experienced, well organized squad to Beijing. Sharp and disciplined they play the International game as well any and should be still here deep into the second week. Linas Kleiza is coming off his best NBA season with the Denver Nuggets and will no doubt play a big role here. Sarunas Jasikevicius wasn’t quite able to adapt to the NBA game but has been a star in Europe for many years, where the Olympic game is a closer resemblance than the NBA style. Prediction: Sixth

Croatia only qualified for these games when they defeated Germany in July. Surprisingly, it is Croatia’s first Olympics since Atlanta in 1996 and of course they were the first finalists against the original Dream Team in 1992. The Croats play with a lot of emotion which can be a good or bad thing, depending on the situation. Big man Marko Banic is a banger and will give it all he’s got down low and there will be a lot of eyes on new Toronto Raptors guard Roko Ukic, who joins up with the Raptors after this tournament. Croatia is capable of being awesome or awful. Prediction: Ninth

Group B
China, Germany, Greece, USA, Spain, Angola

Having home-country advantage will make China a tough match-up for all the other teams. For a long while, Yao Ming has carried the basketball expectations of the world’s most populous nation on his shoulders alone, but here he has the impressive yet still developing New Jersey Nets big man, Yi Jianlian to at least take some of the pressure off. China’s biggest area of concern is at the guard spot where it is felt they will be vulnerable. Basketball is improving in China quicker than any other country, but it’s not their time just yet. Prediction: Eighth

After defeating the USA in the semi-finals of the World Championships two years ago, Greece left itself with no gas in the tank for the final and was soundly beaten by Spain. Greece’s offensive game doesn’t always look organized but is based around lightening quick passing and teamwork. It might appear to sometimes be nothing more than a flurry of 3-point shots, but it’s effective. Their defeat of the USA included scoring on 13-consecutive possessions after half-time in which enabled them to build a margin the USA couldn’t overcome. Prediction: Bronze

Angola won’t be amongst the medals in Beijing but they remain the strongest team from the improving Africa region. None of their players are household names but it will be interesting to how they perform and if they are able to cause a murmur along the way. Prediction: Won’t make it past the group stage

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki will have LA Clippers center Chris Kaman in his corner as the German’s make their unlikely challenge for a medal. However, if Germany’s football team is any sort of measuring stick, then we know that what Germany lacks in talent, they will make up for in organization and tactics. Don’t expect to see them embarrassed, but don’t expect them on the dais at any stage either.
Prediction: Won’t make it past the group stage

Spanish sports fans have never had it so good. Right now, they own soccer’s Euro crown, the Tour de France and Wimbledon and are still basketball’s only actual World Champions. Coincidence? Well, maybe to some extent but the Spanish take their sports seriously and with good reason. They are darn good at it. Spain’s NBA representatives such as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon are the epitome of what team work is all about. They share the ball and trust each other and have total confidence in themselves and their team mates. Two years ago at the World Championships, they lost tournament MVP Gasol for the final and still went out and thumped Greece. If anything, they’ve improved since then. Prediction: Gold

Everyone knows who the Dream Team is. But, since the bar was raised to such extraordinary heights in 1992, the USA hasn’t been able to produce another squad with the same fearful aura. The coach back then was Chuck Daly and the team was so good that Daly didn’t even call a timeout once while he was in Barcelona!
In 2002, the USA were brought back to earth with a thud on their home court at the World Championships when they finished 6th and since then have been rebuilding.
This current crop of players is the best they’ve produced for a long time as they strive to regain their top billing as basketball’s best. Offensively, there are few concerns but it’s at the defensive end where eyebrows have been raised in their warm up games. Plucky Australia in particular got a lot of easy baskets in the paint.
In Kobe Bryant, the USA have a leader who desperately wants to prove that he is a ‘team’ guy and after a disappointing end to his season at the Lakers, he wants to finish his MVP year with a Gold Medal. Unfortunately for Kobe, he’ll be the bridesmaid for the second time in a matter of months. Prediction: Silver

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