By Jeremy Hartman
Yes, I know the dog days of summer are here and that sound you hear is actually football pads cracking against each other but for us basketball junkies the end of August 2010 means the FIBA World Basketball Championships are upon us.
Every four years FIBA holds the World Championship which is basketball’s version of the World Cup. The tournament format is similar as there are four groups of six teams, all vying for the title of the world’s best basketball team. Twenty-four countries get their best basketball players together and compete for the right to be called a world champion. In fact, many countries actually consider the World Championship to be more prestigious than the Olympic basketball event.
This year’s edition of the World Championship should be a competitive one, although a recent rash of injuries to some notable players as well as some that took a rain check could level the playing field more than folks want to admit. Who are some teams and storylines from each group you may want to keep an eye on as the event progresses? I’m glad you asked.
In Group A, Argentina should be the favorite but don’t count out solid squads from Germany and Australia. The Argentines feature four current NBA players but there are some well-known names missing. Manu Ginobili and Pepe Sanchez have long been staples in the backcourt for Argentina but have taken a pass this year. If there’s a possible area of concern for the 2002 World Championship runners-up then it has to be at the guard spots.
Germany will not be bringing Dirk Nowitzki to Turkey this year so someone else will need to step up and replace the scoring load. I’m curious to get a good look at the Aussies as they have an intriguing team. If Patty Mills can perform like he did in the 2008 Olympics when he went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul then Australia can be dangerous in Group A.
Angola has come a long way from Charles Barkley saying, “…they’re in a lot of trouble,” but I wouldn’t expect them to overtake the top three favorites. Jordan is ranked 38th in the world according to FIBA so I don’t see them putting up much of a fight either.
Group B could turn out to be the most interesting of the four groups. The defending Olympic champion United States team is in this group along with Brazil, Croatia, Slovenia, Iran and Tunisia. Most would favor the Americans to take this group but the United States still has an unproven team. Without the big dogs from the 2008 Olympic team suiting up, it remains to be seen just how well the United States will fair.
Slovenia is a team that we should keep a close eye on. Led by the Phoenix Suns’ Goran Dragic (sorry Sasha Vujacic, you crossed the wrong guy), Beno Udrih of Sacramento and Primoz Brezec of the Milwaukee Bucks, Slovenia is a potential dangerous team in Group B.
Don’t count out the Brazilians in Group B. Leandro Barbosa, Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao lead this team that could potentially give the Americans fits, especially with its size on the inside.
There was once a time when Croatia was a team to be reckoned with but it’s not that way anymore. Yes, they can still be a tough out because they play so hard and play well together but I don’t think they have the overall talent to win their group.
Iran and Tunisia are afterthoughts in Group B ranked 21st and 43rd respectively in the world according to FIBA rankings. Iranian Hamed Haddadi was once the feel-good story of basketball after coming to the States and earning a spot with the Memphis Grizzles but the emotion has long since worn off and even a slight return won’t be enough to get them out of the group.
Group C is an interesting array of teams. My personal favorite is the Puerto Rican team but Greece isn’t ranked fourth in the world off stylish uniforms. The Greeks are a wily, skill-full bunch and many predict they will end up among the final four teams in the championships.
China is an intriguing pick but I’m not sold on them after their performance in Beijing two years ago. Russia is potentially dangerous with long-time American player JR Holden running the show. Coach David Blatt did a respectable job with the Russians in the 2008 Olympic games and you can expect that they will not go down without a fight.
Turkey and “Les Elephants” from Cote d’Ivoire appear to bring up the rear in Group C. Cote d’Ivoire is making its first appearance in the World Championship since 1986 but it should be a short stay as they were not even expected to reach the final four in the Afrobasket tournament. Turkey could make a surprising run as they are ranked just behind Russia in the world standings but it won’t be enough to take out the favored Greeks.
The last group could have been made more appealing had France not have a rash of defections. Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Mickael Pietrus and Rodrigue Beaubois are out for the French paving the way for Spain and Lithuania to be favored in Group D.
Even with Pau Gasol out of action due to viewing spinal surgeries, Spain has top-flight talent at their disposal. The young fella, Ricky Rubio, should be older and wiser to go along with mainstays Rudy Fernandez, Jose Calderon, and Juan Carlos Navarro in the backcourt. Felipe Reyes will need to step up his play along with lil’ Gasol, Marc, to protect the paint.
Lithuania isn’t the team of yesteryear as they received a wild card into the group of 24. Injuries have left them with a lack of size but they continue to find ways to win. I would not be surprised to see them in a battle with upstart Canada. The Canadians are that team that nobody wants to play. They have some nice pieces and are playing with confidence after knocking off China in a tune-up game.
I’m curious to see what New Zealand and Lebanon bring to the party. The Tall Blacks have some players that pass the “eye” test but championships are won on the court, not on perception as you get off the bus. After a quick glance at the Lebanese roster you find yourself doing a double-take because five of Lebanon’s players were born in the United States. And if you’re basketball junkies you start to recognize some of the names. Matt Freije played at Vanderbilt and was an all-SEC player. Jackson Vroman played at Iowa State and briefly in the NBA before becoming a naturalized Lebanese citizen and joining their national team. Regardless, both squads will have a tough task trying to take down Spain and Lithuania.
I’m not into making predictions but there is the possibility of some fascinating basketball match-ups that would spark the world’s interest in basketball during this year’s championships. All eyes will be on the United States team but I think we could see a champion emerge from a different group. I like Spain but only because of their experience playing together. I’m also a fan of Puerto Rico, and that has nothing to do with one of my college teammates telling some girls that I was on the Puerto Rican Junior National team!
Nevertheless, the FIBA World Championship brings quality basketball to tickle your taste buds before the NBA season gets underway.
And besides, we all know we’ll watch because we’re hoop addicts.