2006 FIBA World Champs--Preview (Part I)
The 2006 FIBA World Championships start this weekend in Japan where the main storyline is the possible redemption of Team USA. Team USA is definitely one of the favorites and have looked rather sharp in their warm-up games, but by no means will it be a return to the original Dream Team cakewalk days. Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, & Spain have the ability to provide some bumps in the road for the US. Also, revamped Serbia is looking to defend their back-to-back World Champ. titles. All in all, it should be a rather competitive tourney with most of the top national teams represented in Japan (only Russia & Croatia are missing from the field).
I listed the teams in order of predicted finish in group play. The top 4 teams in each group advance to the round of 16 which is the first round of elimination games (one & done style). Example of Round of 16 matchup--Group A-1 vs Group B-4, A-2 vs. B-3, & vice versa. And Group C & D do the same thing--for example, USA projects to play Australia. Below that I listed cursory breakdowns of teams capable of qualifying for the Round of 16, but who are not medal contenders. Medal contenders will be given analysis in Part II.
GROUP A: Argentina, Serbia, France, Nigeria, Venezuela, Lebanon
Quick synopsis-- A top heavy group with two potential Gold medal contenders & Serbia, who could possibly fight for a bronze, but a big dropoff from those three. I am leaning toward Nigeria to nudge out Venezuela for the final playoff spot. Got to go with Oregon's Chamberlain Oguchi heating up from deep like he did in the Pac-10 tourney this year.
GROUP B: Spain, Germany, New Zealand, Panama, Angola, Japan
Quick synopsis-- By far the weakest group, I expect Spain to go undefeated in pool play & only be challenged by Germany. Panama quarterbacked by ex-Tarheel Ed Cota (Yeah, I did not realize he has Panamian roots either) should secure the last spot over either Angola or home-team Japan. I think Germany lucks out being in this bracket, because they have the chance to curtail Dirk minutes (besides the Spain game) & save him for the elimination rounds.
GROUP C: Greece, Brazil, Lithuania, Australia, Turkey, Qatar
Quick synopsis-- Probably the toughest group overall with 5 solid teams without too much separation between them. I expect Greece to take the top spot, but after that I could easily see many different ways the final standings could shake out. I picked Australia for the final playoff spot over Turkey because of Turkey's recent tendency to underachieve. But Turkey has the talent to easily finish in 2nd place, & would not be stunned if they finished in 1st.
GROUP D: USA, Slovenia, Italy, China, Puerto Rico, Senegal
Quick synopsis-- Team USA's group to lose. I am expecting them to go undefeated in pool play & only think Slovenia & Italy can give them much of a test in the 1st round. I am leaning toward China edging out Puerto Rico, because of the way China has played lately since Yao came back. But China's guards must play well & handle the defensive pressure or Puerto Rico could triumph.
Teams who can make the Round of 16 (but don't expect much after that):
Australia-- Is a solid unit that is led by Andrew Bogut. They also have Brad Newley on the perimeter who is a possible 1st-round draft prospect. Dan Kickert, former St. Mary's(CA) star, is a big who can float out & hit from deep. CJ Bruton provides a good veteran who can run the club on the perimeter. Will not be easy to get a playoff berth in Group C--not much separates the top 5 teams, I expect them to fight with Lith. & Turkey for the final two berths.
China-- Have good post play with Yao, Wang Zhi-Zhi, & Yi Jianlian being their best players. But the problem lies in their guard corps which might not be even NCAA Div. 3 quality. They struggle just getting the ball over half-court, & are mighty vulnerable to any type of pressure. It will be a chore just to get Yao the ball in good positions. Should be fighting with Puerto Rico for the last playoff berth in Group D.
New Zealand-- Pretty much on the same level with its Oceania Zone brethren, the Aussies. Went on a surprising run in 2002 all the way to the semis, led by their version of Charles Barkley, Pero Cameron. Cameron, a bruising, undersized PF, is back this year to go along with a solid backcourt led by former UNLV standout, Mark Dickel & Kirk Penney, a former standout at U of Wisconsin. They also have Kevin Bradshaw, a multi-talented big who helped lead 15-seeded Winthrop to a near upset of 2-seed Tennessee this year. Should qualify easy for an elimination berth in the watered-down Group B.
Turkey-- Sort of backed into this year's Worlds by being rewarded with a questionable Wild Card berth over Russia or Croatia. Have really been an underachieving disappointment the last couple years in int'l play. Been some questions of clashing egos, & this team is missing the services of Memo Okur & Hedo Turkoglu. Maybe the lack of these guys makes the team more cohesive, sort of like Serbia. Led by Ibrahim Kutluay & Serkan Erdogen, both great shooters--Kutluay is one of the best shooters in the tourney & was on the Sonics for a year. Current Milwaukee Buck Ersan Ilyasova should see some significant minutes and Atlanta draftee Cenk Akyol gives Turkey great size at the PG spot. They should be in a tight fight for a playoff berth in the tough Group C & can only take the Qatar game lightly. Although, they do have the talent to possibly do some damage in the playoffs; would not be overly stunned if they sneaked into the semis.
Panama-- Sort of an afterthought, but are in the weaker Group B which helps their chances of making the Round of 16. They even could possibly finish ahead of New Zealand, & but should not get too far in the playoff rounds. Former Tarheel stud, Ed Cota, is manning the PG for Panama and has other former NCAA standouts to distribute the ball to. Ruben Douglas is a recent NCAA scoring champion at New Mexico who brings that same talent to Panama. Former Providence bruiser, Ruben Garces, sets the tone in the paint with his rebounding & toughness. Ex-LSU standout Jaime Lloreda gives the squad some more inside talent.
Puerto Rico-- Have played somewhat uneven in the exhibition phase, & might not be as good as recent teams. Orlando's Carlos Arroyo still provides them a quality playmaker & can be a tough cover for many other teams. Center Dan Santiago always plays very well in int'l play & functions well in the high post causing problems for opposing bigs. Larry Ayuso gives them a dangerous scoring option on the perimeter to go along with other wings, Roberto Hatton & Rick Apodaca. Current Wizard center, PJ Ramos, provides P.R. with a huge presence who shows glimpses of decent post play here & there. I expect them to fight with China for the final playoff berth in Group D.
Nigeria-- Not much is expected of them, but I feel they will slip into the final playoff spot ahead of Venezuela. Possess some good athletes like Gabe Muoneke (ex-Texas Longhorn), Ebi Ere (ex-Oklahoma), Ekenne Azubuike, Ime Udoka (Knicks), & Chamberlain Oguchi (current Oregon Duck). Oguchi has the ability to become very hot from long-range--he's an extremely streaky shooter. Don't expect them to do much damage in the elimination rounds.
Teams who should just be happy to be in Japan--Angola, Lebanon, Japan, Qatar, Senegal, & Venezuela.
*--In Part II, I'll give more in-depth breakdowns of the top 11 teams.