Sunday, July 13, 2008

Preview: FIBA Olympic Basketball Qualifying Tournament

Nine countries have qualified for the 12-team field for the Olympic basketball tournament in Beijing, and the final three spots will be determined at this week's 12-team FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Athens.

Honestly, you probably don't have to start paying attention to this tourney until the knockout round starts with the quarters on Friday. The first few days of group play are lacking for intrigue, and are really just set up to eliminate the bottom four teams who have no legit chance: most likely Lebanon, Cape Verde, Korea & Cameroon.

Monday's slate of games is a snoozefest besides maybe to see if Cape Verde can upset New Zealand, which wouldn't stun me. Tuesday is not much better with only Slovenia vs. Canada as a real draw. Things start to pick up on Wednesday with a Puerto Rico-Croatia tilt and Brazil vs. Greece to close out group play.

Here's how the prelim round grouping shapes up:
Group A: Greece, Brazil, Lebanon
Group B: Germany, New Zealand, Cape Verde
Group C: Slovenia, Canada, Korea
Group D: Croatia, Puerto Rico, Cameroon

Play each team in group once. Top two teams in each group advance to the quarters on Friday (7/18). Semis to follow on Saturday, the third place game on Sunday (no championship game will be played, since the Olympic spots will already be determined).

The playoff rounds should be competitive since not much separates the top 7 teams (Greece, Germ, Slov, Croat, Can, Braz, & PR) in terms of talent. Any 3-team combo could come out of that 7, though we feel strongly that Greece is almost a certainty for Beijing.

Here are our picks:

1) Greece:
The one team who should be a lock to finish in the top 3. Not only are they the best team in this tourney, they will be playing in front of some of the most ardent home fans in the world.

Last year's Euros was a mixed bag for Greece--subpar play in the prelims, but improved in the playoff portion with an improbable upset of Slovenia & an intense semifinal where they pushed Spain to the brink.

Team Hellas wants to grind out possessions, and are a tremendous half-court defensive team. Have very active hands that lead to deflections & plenty of steals. Can really turn the screws on defense went they want to and cause turnovers in bunches.

Having Antonis Fotsis back in the fold this summer is huge. Really feel like his absence was a big factor in their early lackluster play last September. The 6-9 forward is the best natural offensive talent Greece has. The former Memphis Grizzly can play inside & out, can put the ball on the deck, underrated finisher. Sometimes is just too reticent to assert himself.

A great backcourt with great size & versatility. The backcourt troika of Papaloukas-Diamantidis-Spanoulis is one of the finest in Europe. All guys can play multiple positions, create off the bounce and are solid on the defensive end to boot. Panagiotas Vasilopoulos will likely start at the SF slot, and gives Hellas another strong defender with a decent shooting touch in the starting unit.

One minor question mark for the Greeks is on the frontline. Somewhat in a transitional period where they let go national team mainstays L. Papadopoulos & D. Dikoudis for more of a youth movement. They still have wily interior vet K. Tsartsaris who is reliable defender, and have regained the services of Sofo Schortsianitis after he spent last summer mainlining feta cheese by the barrel. Giannis Bourousis should get the nod at center and will provide some rebounding & face-up ability.

The one consistent weakness the last few years has been their perimeter shooting. They're not quite as bad as France at shooting, but they've somewhat subpar. Teams packed the paint last year, and it really stymied Papaloukas' play. Though they should be solid enough with Fotsis back, and having a healthy Nikos Zisis will help the perimeter marksmanship as well.

2) Germany:
The tourney sets up pretty well for Team Deutschland--they are placed in the easiest 1st round group, and if everything goes as expected they should avoid Greece or Slovenia. Though they could face Brazil in the quarters, and Brazil does have some bigs who could matchup well with Germany.

Very deep and large frontline. Six players over 6-10. Patrick Femerling combines with brand new German Chris Kaman to give Germany a nice defensive tandem protecting the rim. Sven Schultze is healthy again this year, and provides Germany with another 6-11 guy who floats to 3pt. line. Another guy to keep an eye on is Tim Ohlbrecht. Was being hyped few seasons ago as a lottery pick, probably premature, but the young 7-foot athlete shows some promise. Just wonder how much court time he will see with Kaman in the fold.

Germany has always been a strong rebounding club, and the addition of Kaman just adds more potency on the glass. Ex-Penn St. Nittany Lion Jan Jagla brings nice activity off the bench, and loves to crash the glass. I really think the X-factor for Germany this summer is not Kaman, but Demond Greene. Greene played great in 2006 in Japan, but he kinda disappeared last year. He can really light it up from the perimeter, takes pressure off Dirk when he does. Steffan Hamann is a big point who can penetrate, but will sometimes force the action too much. Back-up PG Pascal Roller provides shooting off the pine.

Underrated loss for the Germans is not having the services of former UNC Tar Heel Ademola Okulaja, who is out with a back injury. He has been Germany's second-best all-around player the last few years, and was a strong rebounder at the SF slot.

How well Germany integrates Kaman is a lingering question. He just recently was cleared to play, and hasn't even played in an exhibition setting with his teammates. Coach Dirk Bauermann is one of the better int'l coaches out there, and always has Team Germany well-prepared. The addition of Kaman will definitely help lighten the offensive load that Dirk has had to carry every summer.

3) Slovenia:
Really played well in the early stages of Eurobasket last year, before their '07 Euros trip was rudely ended by a historic Greece comeback in the quarters. Were a mild surprise thru first six games last summer thanks mostly to their consistent defensive effort. Will be without the services of some of their top talent once again (Udrih, Vujacic, Smodis, Nachbar, Brezec, & E. Lorbek).

At the '07 Euros, Rasho Nesterovic played well on both ends of the floor, was effective with his baby hook, and was the defensive anchor of Slovenia's strong play. Not having the services of CSKA Moscow's Matjaz Smodis due to injury is a major bummer. Former Raptor Uros Slokar will try to fill the void left by the multi-skilled Smodis, and he can at least replicate Smodis' outside shooting ability.

Euroleague vets Sani Becirovic & Jaka Lakovic provide firepower at the guard spots--both guys can drill from deep. Off the bench, Goran Dragic is big, athletic PG who plays with great intensity and is already a strong defensive talent who hounded Tony Parker in '07 Euros. Domen Lorbek provides another perimeter threat for the Slovenians.

Shakiest pick for a top 3 qualifier right now. The frontcourt depth is an issue this year. Think any of the following 4 "contenders" can easily slide in front of Slovenia for 3rd place & a trip to Beijing. Not sure Slovenia is any better than Croatia, but have been playing solid in exhibition action & the defense still appears to be tight, so leaning toward Slovenia.

Contenders: (In alpha order)

Think some are writing these guys off a little too soon. I think some are focusing on who isn't here - Nene, Barbosa, Varejao - for Brazil, and not realizing that there is still some decent talent around. Have a good chance to fall in the top 3.

SF Marcelo Machado is a dangerous shooting threat who can get red-hot streaky; not a bad passer either. Alex Garcia & Marcelo Huertas form an explosive backcourt who push the pace & attack the defense. Even without Nene & Varejao, this Brazil frontline ain't shabby, and has some tough hombres. Tiago Splitter is the primary interior weapon, but Rafael Araujo, JP Batista, & M. Becker bring heft & some solid skills to the table.

Brazil has played well in the warm-up phase the last few weeks, and the players seem to be much more comfortable with new coach Moncho Monsalve after having a near mutiny last year, as the dreadful work of Lula Ferreira at the FIBA Americas tournament in Vegas last summer may have cost this team an automatic bid to Beijing.

Canada has made strides the last few years and is a solid defensive club with strong rebounding. They are hamstrung from taking it to the next level because of the lack of a dynamic scoring threat. Tried to push Carl English into that role, but the fact is he's just not good enough to be a go-to-guy. Though, actually, English is not bad in a point-forward role creating for others.

Canada can really go thru lulls on the offensive end, and I foresee this trend continuing. The lack of a potent scorer is compounded by the fact that they really don't have a strong pure point in the post-Nash era. Jermaine Anderson is an effective jump-shooter but can't really penetrate off the bounce, and has little in the way of point guard instincts. There's really no one to create easy offensive looks on Team Canada. This is why Leo Rautins has called on 36-year old Rowan Barrett to rejoin Canada, to hopefully provide some offensive punch that's desperately needed.

Swingman Olu Famutimi shows glimpses of big-time talent, but he only seems to show it in small bursts. Showed last year he can create in the mid-range area, and played well vs. Team USA, but he would disappear for long stretches.

Actually need to look to give Sam Dalembert more touches. He actually did a nice job on the offensive end in Vegas, and had his solid turnaround jumper working well.

A nice frontline rotation of Dalembert, ex-Pitt standout Levon Kendall, Dave Thomas (2nd most famous Canadian Dave Thomas, beauty.) & Miami Heat reserve Joel Anthony. Canada was a solid defensive unit last year built around Dalembert, who was arguably the best defensive player in '07 FIBA Americas. Also, the Maple Leafers should be strong on the boards.

Anthony is active body who boards well. Thomas has a nice jumper & will hit the glass. Kendall is a good positional defender in the painted area. Not to mention sets good screens, runs the floor hard, and even has a solid jumper. Syracuse's Andy Rautins is back after a brutal knee injury in Vegas last summer to be the Canucks' designated zone-buster.

The rebounding & defense should be solid every game, but can they find consistency on offense is the big question. If they find some rhythm on offense, this team has a shot to steal a spot from Slovenia or Germany.

Croatia has a nice collection of raw talent with underrated athletes and capable shooters, which can be a dangerous combination in FIBA play. Multiple guys who can bury the deep ball. Also have improved their defensive play the last few years.

Marko Popovic & Davor Kus provide deadly shooting at the guard spots. And both are good passers who can play PG in a pinch. The status of former Net Zoran Planinic is somehwat dicey, but he is currently expected to play this week. Planinic sets the table nicely for Croatia, and is one of the best floor generals in Europe. Roko Ukic gives the Croatians a big, athletic guard to bring off the bench who can attack the basket. Also, 6-7 SG Marko Tomas is a NBA prospect who adds another dangerous shooting option to the mix, but also can cause problems for the opposition with his agility & strong defense.

Will definitely miss the services of Mario Kasun, who was a strong interior presence for them last summer. Will have to make do with former Milwaukee Buck Damir Markota, a 7-footer with solid athleticism who can float out to hit jumpers & can hit the boards as well. Grizzled vet Nikola Prkacin provides a big body who will bang & hit the glass. Also, Marko Banic & Stanko Barac will try to fill the void left by Kasun. Banic, a solid rebounder & Stanko adds another 7-footer who can float outside, plus he has the best name in the tourney.

Remember, Croatia beat Spain in the prelim stage last year, and Greece needed a Spanoulis 30-footer at the buzzer to hold off Team Croatia in the prelims. Extremely dangerous club with a nice mix of shooters & athletes who I think have the best chance of displacing Germany or Slovenia in the top 3.

Puerto Rico:
Have looked sharp in the exhibition stage so far and has a legit shot at Top 3 finish. This team revolves around the strong guardplay of JJ Barea, C. Arroyo, & Larry Ayuso.

Though Arroyo can be erratic in the NBA, he usually plays well in FIBA, and will look to score a ton. Works the pick/roll well, and will be greatly aided by the return of big man Dan Santiago, who did not play last summer. Puerto Rico likes to run pick/roll with Santiago, and Dan rolls to bucket well.

Like Arroyo, Ayuso is a reliable threat in FIBA play -- he can score in bunches. Dallas Mav Barea has looked great in pre-tournament friendlies. The recent departure of PF Angelo Reyes is an underrated blow because the Puerto Ricans are thin at the forward spots, and Reyes is a bull on the glass - he was very consistent in Vegas last year. They will need some type of auxiliary support from behemoth PJ Ramos & 7-foot sniper Ricky Sanchez to compete with other solid frontlines in Athens.

Here for the complimentary gyros:
Think New Zealand should make it to the quarters if they can beat Cape Verde, but can't see them seriously contending for a top 3 spot. There's decent talent for the Tall Blacks--players like Kirk Penney, Craig Bradshaw, Pero Cameron--but they have been underachieving ever since their surprise semifinal appearance in '02 Worlds.

Would not be stunned if Cameroon stole a game from either Puerto Rico or Croatia. The African Zone runner-up features some long athletes like UCLA's Alford Aboya, Texas' Alexis Wangmene, and the venerable Ruben Boumtje Boumtje, though they will miss UCLA's Luc Mbah a Moute, who's playing summer league with the Bucks.

Cameroon's African counterpart, Cape Verde, is the underdog story of the tournament. The Verdians were unable to add Ryan Gomes or Dana Barros (!) to the roster, but did add Dana's cousin, Tony, and Jeff Xavier from Providence College. Could see them testing New Zealand - a longshot to beat them, but it could happen.

Lebanon was a mild surprise at the '06 Worlds, even pulling off an upset of France, but were dealt a blow with the untimely injury to star player Joe Vogel. The main threat now is Fadi El Khatib.

Korea has Ha. So they have that going for them.