2012 FIBA Qualifying Tourney Preview
The 2nd FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tourney tips off on Monday in Caracas, Venezuela. The purpose of this week-long slate of games is to determine the last three spots in the Olympic basketball tournament.
We wish FIBA would do away with this tourney and go back to the old qualifying system. Teams don't have enough time to prepare and are forced into extra travel. Thankfully, this is a quick tourney.
Honestly, not much is happening during the first two days of games. Venezuela-Nigeria is likely the only game of import on Monday (Macedonia-Angola has an outside chance of being good). Tuesday is a total snoozefest unless Venezuela can make things interesting at home vs. Lithuania. The schedule starts to pick up Wednesday.
Here's how the opening groups stack up: (Listed in predicted order of finish)
Group A: Greece, Puerto Rico, Jordan
Group B: Lithuania, Venezuela, Nigeria
Group C: Russia, Dom. Republic, Korea
Group D: (FYR)Macedonia, Angola, New Zealand
Each team plays the other two teams in group once. The group stage takes place over three days (July 2-4) with each team getting one day off. Top two finishers in each group move on to the single-elimination quarters.
The quarters will be played on July 6 (A1 vs. B2, B1 vs. A2, C1 vs. D2, D1 vs. C2). The semis follow the next day. Win the semis,you're London-bound. Semi losers face off the following day for the last chance at London.
Expect another Euro sweep like back in 2008 with Russia, Lithuania and Greece earning bids to London. Macedonia, Dom. Republic and Puerto Rico are all closely matched on a level below, and all are capable challenging Greece for 3rd place.
Here's how we'd tier the teams:
TIER I (Favorites for London)
TIER II (Other contenders for last London bid)
TIER III (Longshots for London)
TIER IV: (Will only see London by double-decker bus tour)
Let's take a deeper look at the teams:
TIER I (The Favorites for London):
(Finished 3rd at EuroBasket)
Nearly the same roster is back that advanced to the Eurobasket semis. The best team in the tourney with the best coach in the field (David Blatt). A legit Olympic medal contender (if they qualify).
You've probably heard it before, but to the few who don't know--this team can really defend. Led Eurobasket in points allowed (65.7) and overall defensive FG pct. (41.4%). It's pretty much been this way since Blatt took over six years ago.
Russia has a deep, athletic squad with good size at every position. You don't get easy shots against this team--they challenge everything. Blatt likes to mix up his defensive looks and use different types of zones.
Led by their trio of versatile 6-9 forwards Andrei Kirilenko, Vik Khyrapa and Sergei Monya. All three guys defend, rebound and pass well.
Kirilenko is coming off a Euroleague MVP season and, next to Al Horford, is the best all-around player in this tourney. AK was terrific last summer averaging 15 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.6 spg, 49% overall and 41% on 3PA.
Russia makes up for a lack of a dominant scoring threat with lots of cutting action and sharp ball movement. Spacing is usually good and they generally keep the basket area open. Not an explosive offensive unit, but don't need to be with their defense.
Won't have the services of Andrey Vorontsevich, but shouldn't be too big a deal with the other 6-9 forwards on the roster. Also, combo guard Sergey Bykov is out with injury as well.
Sasha Kahn returns after sitting out last summer with injury and will split minutes with Timo Mozgov at center. Mozgov was solid for the third summer in a row averaging 9.5 ppg (64%), 4.1 rpg and 1.5 bpg in 20 mins/game, but still has issues fouling.
Athletic combo guard Alexey Shved is the key man in the backcourt rotation. After a breakout season with CSKA, Shved is one the top NBA free-agent targets in Europe. Shved played solid ball last summer and is very crafty running pick/roll.
Anton Ponkrashov, a big, slow PG with keen passing skills, and reserve guard Dimitry Khvonstov should both see more minutes in Bykov's absence.
Starting SG Vitali Fridzon is the best pure shooter on the team, who will curl off screens.
Would not really call this team a good outside-shooting team. They're alright, but some of their guys are inconsistent. Another minor concern was their FT shooting was not very good last year (65%). Something to keep an eye on.
Not advancing to the Olympics would be a disappointment.
(Finished 5th at EuroBasket)
Russia might have the best defense in the field, but Lithuania can lay claim to top offense. The perenially offensively-efficient club, was devastatingly good last summer: 81 ppg (#2 at Euro) on 51% shooting (#1 at Euro).
No surprise their 3pt. shooting was on point (40%, #1 at Euro). Not to mention, they were one of the top rebounding clubs at Euro '11.
And they played this well without their best offensive threat, Linas Kleiza, who returns this summer. The rest of the roster pretty much stayed intact from last summer.
Kleiza was one of the top players at the '10 Worlds and helped lead Lithuania to an unexpected run to the semis. Likely to see more post-up/extended isos calls with Kleiza back in the lineup (LTU likes to screen him into his post-ups). Saw very few last summer, as it was a heavy diet of pick/roll.
The frontcourt rotation is loaded once again with four other valuable contributors besides Kleiza.
Jonas Valanciunas played solid ball in limited minutes last summer and expect Jonas to have an increased role this year. His post game has improved over the last year (reliable hook) and might see more post touches. Jonas functions very well as a roll man when Saras is handling.
Veteran 7-footer Robertas Javtokas won't do much offensively besides score occasionally on rolls but remains a strong presence on the boards thanks to good hops and a killer shark tattoo.
Darius Songaila is another experienced vet at Coach Kemzura's disposal, who at this point in his career will be called upon for a few rebounds and mid-range jumpers.
Rugged PF Paulius Jankunas has an awkward, yet effective, jumper and is a physical presence inside.
The PG combo of Mantas Kalnietis and Saras Jasikevicius is back again and did a nice job running the offense last year. Kalnietis probably had his best summer with the National team last year and they need him to replicate that play this year.
36-year-old Jasikevicius will get the rest of the minutes at PG and proved last year he can still run the pick/roll masterfully.
The Lithuanian guards do have a tendency to be careless with the ball (a perennial problem), and they struggled with turnovers last year.
Veteran guard Rimas Kaukenas shot the ball very well last year (11 ppg on 62% overall) and will also do a bit of ball-handling.
SF Jonas Maciulis returns after sitting out the Euros and will likely start with sharpshooter Simas Jasaitis out with injury. The athletic Maciulis played very well at both ends of the floor at the 2010 Worlds.
Former Dukie Martynas Pocius will get minutes at both wing spots and played well off the bench last summer. Likes to aggressively attack the rim and can draw fouls.
Imagine this team is still somewhat bitter from the upset they suffered vs. (FYR) Macedonia in front of their home fans. Some bad turnovers late in the quarterfinals killed them vs. (FYR) Macedonia. If these teams meet again, expect Lithuania to get revenge.
Expect Lithuania's offense to hum as usual and as long as they keep their TOs in check, a trip to London is likely.
(Finished 6th at EuroBasket)
Greece gets a much needed boost on the offensive end with Vassilis Spanoulis coming back after missing Euro '11 with an ab injury. Spanoulis helped lead overachieving Olympiacos to an improbable Euroleague title (not to mention upsetting Panathinaikos for the Greek title).
The one thing Greece was missing last year was a point producer, which was not surprising with no Spanoulis, Sofo or Diamantidis. The offense managed only 71 ppg on 44% shooting.
It's imperative that the Greeks hit their outside looks at a better clip this summer to open up the floor for Spanoulis' punishing penetration. They shot the ball poorly from deep last year (29%). Antonis Fotsis was the only consistent shooter last year.
In 2010, teams concentrated on keeping Spanoulis (and Diamamtidis) out of the painted area and forced Greece to shoot over the top of packed-in defenses in 2010. Could see more of that strategy in Venezuela.
Also, Greece could be vulnerable because of compromised prep time. Their three top scorers from last summer--Fotsis, Bourousis and Zisis--all played in the Italian League that only ended two weeks ago.
Lucky for Greece these vets have been with the national team for awhile. Plus, nearly the same roster is intact from last summer minus Kostas Koufos. Greece has pretty good depth and doesn't lose much talent when they go to the bench.
After Russia, probably best defense in the field. Greece held EuroBasket opponents to 67.4 ppg on 41.7% shooting (both numbers 2nd best on behind Russia). Expect the team defense to be strong once again this year.
Greece returned to a defensive-minded approach that kept opponents in the 60s/low 70s similar to their halycon days under Coach Giannakis.
Giannis Bourousis is a top target of many NBA GMs and is one the best rebounders in Europe. Bourousis played solid ball for Greece last year--11.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg in 22 mpg--and will likely see some post touches when Greece goes away from pick/roll action.
Bourousis might have to play more minutes then he's accustomed as Koufos and Big Sofo are absent. They will miss Koufos as he was highly efficient in only 18 minutes a game last summer.
Veteran stretch-4 Antonis Fotsis was Greece's best player at EuroBasket--averaged 11.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 49% on 3PA. Fotsis has a nice all-around and has played in many big games in his career. They need him to continue to knock down jumpers and provide quality defense.
Recent NY Knick draftee Kostas Papinikolaou will be the primary starter at SF and expect him to fill his role at a spot-shooter, cutter and defender.
Combo forwards Kostas Kaimakoglou and Giorgos Printezis are both known for their relentless, aggressive style which leads to easy buckets around the rim and rebounds. Though, both guys are erratic outside shooters.
Printezis (Knicks hold rights) is coming off a bounce-back year where he was key in Olympiacos' run to the Euro and Greek titles.
Nick Calathes' role will probably lessen a bit with the return of Spanoulis. Calathes was decent at EuroBasket creating shots for others off of pick/roll. But he still remains a subpar shooter.
Greece needs better play from veteran combo guard Nikos Zisis this year. Zisis is better than his 37% shooting performance at Eurobasket and they need his reliable mid-range jumper coming off screens.
SG/SF Kostas Vasileiadis is a solid athlete who can drill jumpers off the dribble or catch-n-shooting--Greece will run him off screens. They need him to step up his shooting as he's one of the better pure shooters on the team.
Expect a steady diet of Spanoulis' pick/roll and less of the off-ball screen action from last summer. We'll see if they can consistently spread the floor around him.
A lot of top-level European talent on the roster with plenty of experience in big games. Picking them to take the last Olympic bid but they can be beaten by FYROM, Puerto Rico or Dom. Republic.
TIER II (Other contenders for last London bid):
(Finished 3rd at FIBA Americas)
Would be in the Olympics if the old qualification format was in place, but this second-layer of qualification hurts them. Coach Calipari did a solid job in his first year with the National team, guiding them to a Americas bronze in Argentina.
Also, coming off an impressive undefeated run at Centrobasket where they knocked off Puerto Rico, 80-72 in the finals.
Had to weather a little controversy with Cal leaving Charlie Villanueva off the roster supposedly because of fitness issues. Not sure how big a deal this will be as Villanueva has struggled somewhat adjusting to FIBA play and was subpar last season.
Their overall depth has taken somewhat of a hit with the absence of Villanueva and and veteran combo guard Luis Flores. Coach Cal will likely go with a short rotation of 7-8 guys, and pray Al Horford & Jack Martinez don't get into foul trouble.
Al Horford was one of the top players at the Americas--19 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 3 apg, 2 spg, 1.1 bpg--and is always an all-around force for Dom Rep. Al brings defense, rebounds, mid-range jumpers, some hooks and great passing.
The second most important guy after Horford is his frontcourt partner, PF/C Jack Michael Martinez. Martinez was once again a beast in FIBA play last summer--14.5 ppg, 12 rpg--and will likely be atop the rebound leaderboard. Force on the offensive glass. Martinez can score a bit around the rim and is an underrated passer.
Like with his Kentucky teams, Calipari will have the Dominicans running the dribble-drive offense. Smart move since Horford and Martinez's passing skills from the hi-post will be accentuated. Plenty of hi-lo action between the two bigs.
Francisco Garcia will play both wing spots and will look to get up plenty of jumpers (will be coming off screens often). Garcia usually does a nice job as help defender for Dom. Rep. Eulis Baez will see action at the SF and is an above-average rebounder, but doesn't have a reliable jumper.
The point guard position remains a big question mark once again. Edgar Sosa is still trying to regain his form after his horrific leg injury at the Americas. Sosa was playing solid ball before he went down vs. Panama and didn't play in Centrobasket.
Former Pitt Panther combo guard Ronald "Razor" Ramon is a very reliable shooter (shot the ball great last year, 44% on 3PA) who will handle the ball occasionally. Not to mention, he brings a hefty dose of machismo to the proceedings.
Coach Cal has to feel better about his backcourt depth since he got quality play from reserve guards, Juan Coronado and Manuel Fortuna, at Centrobasket.
Always wondered if there was an ulterior motive for Calipari taking this gig and I think I got my answer. 16-year-old Karl Towns (6-11), who happens to be one of the top U.S. players in the Class of '15, somehow managed to make the roster. Not fishy at all.
They need steady point guard play and crisp execution if they want to pull out the tough wins.
Legit shot of beating any team in this field. Could very well see them matched up with Greece in the 3rd-place game with a shot at London on the line.
(Finished 4th at EuroBasket)
The Cinderella team of last summer's EuroBasket, which upset home-team Lithuania to advance to the semis.
Naturalized PG Bo McCalebb was a stud at EuroBasket--21.4 ppg, 3.7 apg, 2 spg, 2 TOpg--and returns to lead this team again. Was second in scoring to Tony Parker, second to Kirilenko in steals and first in FT attempts per game.
Bo can blow by any defender without a ball screen. And when in pick-n-roll, he's not just a danger to dribble off the pick and turn the corner, but he's also dangerous splitting or going opposite of the screen. Can finish with either hand at the rim and gets to the FT line a ton.
Bo has steadily improved his jump shot over the last few years, but still have to force him to be a jump shooter (go underneath screens) rather than a slasher.
McCalebb was pretty much a one-man wrecking crew for FYROM last summer and if he has an off night, this team is in trouble on the offensive end. A big dropoff after Bo on the offensive end for FYROM.
PF Pero Antic has decent skills as a second-option but you cringe at his Antic's dubious shot selection (jacking up threes), which can be an issue for this team. His sometimes careless approach to game takes FYROM out of the flow.
The simple fact is that Macedonia's offense is not that great as a whole. FYROM shot just 38% overall and only 30% from behind the arc at EuroBasket.
Somewhat amazing they've been able to get as far as they have considering how poorly they played offensively.
One of the keys that allowed to them to mask their shooting problems was their knack for taking care of the ball. They averaged only 10 TOpg turnovers/game (best at Euro).
Their strong overall defensive play helped them mask their offensive defiencies as well. Held opponents to 43% shooting, 31% from 3pt. range. They also were second in steals (8.2) and were able to force roughly 16 TOpg.
They had a sterling TO margin of plus-six per game. Extra possessions were huge for this team.
Big, experienced physical frontline rotation with the likes of Antic, Peja Samardziski and Todor Gecevski. All three guys are tough on the offensive glass. Each guy can face-up and give FYROM capable pick-n-pop options. All three bigs will post up some as well.
This not a particularly deep team, especially on the perimeter.
Veteran combo guard Vlado Ilievski can create a little bit off the dribble and hit pull-ups, but he tends to be streaky.
SF Vojdan Stojanovski (6'5) was valuable last year because of his aggressive defense and timely shooting vs. Lithuania (5-for-5 3PA). Shot the ball well on his club team, but also tends to be streaky.
Like the Greeks, their prep phase has been hindered by the Italian League playoffs, which kept Bo McCalebb from joining until just recently.
Expect them to shoot the ball somewhat better this year, but still think most of their guys are naturally erratic shooters. If they can't generate the crazy TO margin from last year, they could struggle.
Just don't think they're good enough offensively after Bo to surpass any of the other Euro teams in this field.
(Finished 4th at FIBA Americas)
Very closely matched to Dom. Republic. Lost to Dom. Rep. in the Centrobasket finals but were without the services of Carlos Arroyo, who joins the team for this tourney.
A deep, experienced roster that will be playing close to home; could see favorable crowd support. Played solid ball at the Americas and pushed Argentina to the brink in the semis.
Both Arroyo and JJ Barea will share ball-handling duties (often play together) and will get plenty of ball screens. Both guys can be dangerous scorers in FIBA play.
This team is a capable offensive unit and can get into good grooves. Though, there's also a danger of offense devolving, in a moment's notice, into a more playground affair. Arroyo and Barea have a tendency to pound the ball and treat sections of the game as their personal one-on-one competitions.
Shot the long-ball well last summer (36%) but got up only 19 3PA, which is kind of low by their standards. Historically like to jack up more. Also, tend to get out in transition.
Nice frontcourt rotation led by 7-3 PJ Ramos, who played well at the 2010 Worlds. Ramos is back on the team after missing last summer with injury and expect more post-ups sprinkled into the usual barrage of Barea/Arroyo ball screens.
Ramos has surprisingly spry post moves and a nice touch around the rim. He often demands extra attention because his immense size requires help. Just can't count on him to be consistent as he easily loses focus.
36-year-old center Daniel Santiago proved last summer he can still be valuable in a reduced role (11 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 57% in 17 mpg). Ricky Sanchez (Grizzlies own rights) functions as a stretch-4 threat.
Former Knick Renaldo Balkman was productive off the bench last summer with activity on defense, off the ball and the boards. Former Miami (OH) Redhawk Nathan Peavy is a power forward who can hit jumpers, put the ball on the deck and defend on the ball.
Their wing rotation is a little untested. SF Alex Galindo was valuable last year as spot-shooter and long-armed defensive presence. Former Siena Saint Alex Franklin is a strong, active athlete who is aggressive on defense and the boards. SG David Huertas (ex-Ole Miss) is a reliable shooter off the bench.
A fairly well-balanced team with good talent inside and out. Are in the same group as Greece and should be able to give them a challenge.
TIER III (Longshots for London):
(Finished 5th at FIBA Americas)
Playing at home but were done no favors being placed in same group as Lithuania and Nigeria.
Coming off a somewhat disappointing run through the South American where they lost to Argentina's B-team twice including a trouncing in the finals. They led the Americas tourney with 95 ppg and shot 51% overall.
Coach Eric Musselman earned a reputation as a defensive-oriented coach in the NBA but he turned Venezuela into an uptempo, offensive juggernaut in one year. Seemingly every player played above his station offensively last summer.
Can't remember a Venezuela team this explosive and efficient. Venezuela usually would struggle with its shooting but last summer, somewhat surprisingly, found the touch from outside--41% from behind the arc (2nd best at Americas).
Actually had issues on the defensive end last summer and need a much better effort this summer if they want any chance at an Olympic bid. They were great in transition offensively, but their transition defense stunk.
With Hector Romero trying to work his way back from injury, Greivis Vasquez emerged as Venezuela's main option last summer. Vasquez was one of the top performers at Americas, averaging 19 ppg, 5.8 apg (#1 at Americas), 4 rpg and a sizzling 52% on 3PA. Vasquez was instrumental in Venezuela's establishing an efficient, uptempo identity last year. Vasquez still needs to curtail his flashy tendencies--too many TOs last summer.
Former Marquette guard David Cubillan played terrific ball last summer as well. Normally known as just a spot-shooter, Musselman had him handle the ball a fair amount last year (he ran the pick/roll well) and expect the same this year.
SG John Cox (Ex-USF Don) is another quality shooter and passer, who has established himself as a top player in the French League.
Undersized PF Hector Romero (6'7) is their main weapon on the frontline. The powerfully-built Romero does most of his damage inside 15-feet, drawing fouls at a high rate. Averaged 12 ppg on 61% shooting in 21 mins/game; not bad for a guy still recovering from injury.
Recent Creighton grad Greg Echenique (6'10) uses his generous frame to carve out deep post position to score around the rim Actually moves his 270 lbs. better than you would expect which allows him to be effective on defense either blocking shots or guarding the post.
The sleeker Windi Graterol will split minutes with Echenique at the center and is effective as a roller. Both centers shot over 60% last year and rebounded well.
35-year-old SF Oscar Torres (ex-Houston Rocket), always known as strictly a slasher, shot the ball surprisingly well last summer--50% on 3PA. Skeptical he will repeat that type of shooting again.
Can they shoot the ball and score the ball overall as efficiently as last year? Think last year was kind of fluky and imagine the collective offensive performance will come back down this summer.
Venezuela's homecoming party could be over real quick as they play Nigeria on Monday. The game looks to be a toss-up as Nigeria has the advantage on the frontline (especially rebounding) while Venezuela's backcourt is better. Having Vasquez, homecourt and more continuity on the roster could be the tiebreaker.
(Finished 3rd at Afrobasket)
Very tough to gauge this team since they have shuffled so many new faces into the roster this year. Only three rotation players--Derrick Obasohan, Olumide Oyedeji, Ejike Ugboaja--return from last year's squad that finished 6-1 and lost to Angola in the African semis.
The most notable new additions are N.O. Hornet Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu. On paper, this could be Nigeria's strongest team ever and particularly deep on frontline. The most athletic team in the field.
But this group has very little experience playing together. Probably would have been better served to try get some these guys on the roster last year when they would have had an easier time qualifying in Afrobasket.
If you're a fan of 6-9 athletic rebounders, this is the team for you. They have an endless supply. Were tough on the glass last year and expect the same this summer.
ACC alumni Ekene Ibekwe (Maryland) and Alade Aminu (Ga Tech) are two bouncy 6-9 forwards who can board, blocks shots and finish.
Big men Ejike Ugboaja (Cavs '06 2nd-round draftee) and former SuperSonic Olumide Oyedeji were terrific at Afrobasket 2011. Again, both are athletic rebounders.
The problem is that most of the bigs are not particularly skilled on offense besides Diogu. Diogu will likely be their main option in the post.
Project to be solid on defense with all the mobility and shot-blocking on the roster. The backcourt rotation can't match the frontcourt talent.
SG Derrick Obasohan was the leading scorer on last year's team and is Nigeria's best shooter. Chamberlin Oguchi (Ex-Oregon) provides more shooting behind Obasohan.
Tony Skinn, who was a starter on the underdog George Mason team that made a run to the '06 Final Four, will be called upon to run the point. Skinn is nothing special of facilitator and you wonder how well Nigeria will get into their half-court sets. Will miss Ime Udoka who functioned as a point forward and helped direct this team.
This team might be better suited to up the tempo. Ibekwe and the Aminu bros. are good in transition.
Questions remain about how well this team functions in the half-court offensively. Though, not really sure what to expect from Nigeria since these players haven't played together much. Open the tourney with a must-win game vs. Venezuela.
TIER IV: (London's not in the cards)
Angola was the proverbial fave to win last summer's Afrobasket but were upset by Tunisia in the finals and now have to go through a more competitive tourney to qualify for the Olympics. A feisty, undersized club that's always a tough out. Angola could give Macedonia a scare.
New Zealand earned a second chance to qualify for London simply because they're New Zealand. Got to love the Oceania zone set-up. Will be without their two best offensive threats, Kirk Penney and Thomas Abercrombie, so what little chance they had of stealing a bid with those guys available is reduced to no chance without them. New Zealand does have a shot at getting to the quarters since they only have to beat Angola to get there.
The two Asia zone representatives, Jordan and Korea, round out the field and are the two weakest teams in the field. Korea will not have much of chance as Russia and Dom. Republic should be too much for them to handle.