Sunday, July 20, 2008

FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tourney--Germany Grabs Final Spot For Beijing

3rd Place Game: Germany 96, Puerto Rico 82

The Germans put this game away in the 3rd with a flurry of 3pts midway thru the quarter, and sent Dirk to his first Olympic appearance; I'll wager on Dirk carrying the flag for the German contingent. Got back their long-range mojo that Croatia successfully nixed in the Semis--Germany was 12/23 from deep.

Dirk relied on his arsenal of turnaround jumpers from the blocks to get rolling in the 1st half (fair amount turning right shoulder). Again, Dirk found himself on the free throw line a lot with a 12/13 clip--Dirk averaged 10 fta per in the tourney. The Bavarian Bomber finished with 32 pts, 9 rebs, & 2 blks. No surprise, Dirk was the best player in this tourney, and was very solid on defense teaming with Kaman to protect the interior.

Puerto Rico decided they needed to double Dirk in the 2nd quarter. This decision definitely helped open up the perimeter looks for the rest of Team Deutschland. Helped Demond Greene get his groove back--Greene looked like the Demond of '06 with four 3pts. for 15 pts. Robert Garrett came off the bench and buried two 3pts himself in the decisive 3rd quarter run.

Like how they went more high pick/roll with Hamann today. Hamann can really dart into the lane and is a great finisher for a PG. Steffan--not known for his outside shot--even added a few deep makes. Hamann ended with 19 pts on 6/8 & 4 assts. Think Coach Bauermann has to look to mix in Hamann PnRs with the post-ups for Dirk & Kaman a little more. Try to encourage Hamann to drive more often.

Kaman returned to cleaning the glass after an off-night vs. Croatia. He again showed nice mixes of nice post moves--usually spinning back to finish with his left--and continued to be successful with mid-range jumpers. Chris had 10 on 5/7 & 12 rebs in only 21 minutes.

Dallas Mav JJ Barea had another impressive outing using his speed to attack the defense. Had two nice steals on his NBA teammate Dirk where he knew the scouting report to double Dirk when he's spinning. Barea pitched in 18 pts, 6 rebs, 4 assts, & 3 stls.

Big man PJ Ramos helped Barea out with 16 on 7/12 & 9 rebs, mixing some agile post moves with some medium-range jumpers. He moves a lot better than you would expect, has good footwork, and a good touch. You can see why he has enticed NBA scouts & front offices in the past. But then again, you can also see why he's hasn't found a place in the NBA because he seems to lack a motor, and is not much of defensive factor for a guy his size.

**-The groups for Beijing were finalized on Sunday with a draw to determine where to place Greece, Croatia, & Germany. Here's how the groups will shape up for the Olympics:
GROUP A: Argentina, Australia, Croatia, Iran, Lithuania, Russia
GROUP B: Angola, China, Germany, Greece, Spain, USA

Yes, Greece, Spain, & USA in the same group is brutal & makes the group top-heavy. But Group A might have more balance with the only night off being vs. Iran. Greece is a definite medal contender, and has a shot at the Gold, if things fall right. Germany & Croatia have close to no shot at getting to finals, but both have a small chance of sneaking in steal a Bronze. Stay tuned for more Olympic coverage in the coming weeks.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tourney--Semis Recap

Croatia 76, Germany 70:

Croatia came out on top primarily thanks to a outstanding defensive effort. And got timely shooting from role players like K. Loncar, Davor Kus (2 big 3pts in 4th), & Nicevic down the stretch. This outcome is a mild upset at best. Croatia actually has more offensive options than Germany, plus their defense is tight.

Croatia was extremely physical with Dirk all game. Tried to deny him the ball the best they could, and tried to push him out of his sweet spots. Germany had a hell of a time trying to run their offense all game.

Croatia's defense was superb. Swarming help, and outstanding recovery where they closed out on Germany's perimeter shots all day. Germany had very few clean looks on the perimeter. The great ball-movement that was a key vs. New Zealand was nearly non-existent vs. Croatia. Croatia has really made steady improvement defensively the last few years.

Germany's defense was pretty solid as well. Had a few miscues where they overhelped, which did seem to happen at the worst time in the 4th. Kus hit two 3pts, Nicevic & Loncar were left wide open in the high post and they buried a few jumpers. Held Croatia to 23 points in the 2nd & 3rd quarters combined. But were outscored 29-22 in the 4th.

Marko Tomas continues to be one of the top performers of the tourney. Drilled three 3pts in the 1st quarter, including one to beat the buzzer. Then had two tough dribble drives to his left, including a huge 3-point play in 4th. Marko finished with 21 & 5 rebs, and drilled three 3pts, all in the 1st quarter.

Can't fault Dirk, he continued to play with aggression--30 pts & 13 rebs. Since the German offense could not run properly, Dirk started to just go one-on-one in the 2nd quarter, and single-handedly led a 10-0 run in the quarter. Must have drawn 6-7 fouls just off-the-ball, but also attacked the painted area once again. 19 of Dirk's points were from the foul line.

Had some success setting up Kaman on the right block in the 3rd. Kaman had somewhat of a mixed bag of a game--had some nice post-up moves, but only 3 rebs after being a force on the glass thus far. Kaman was definitely effected by Stanko Barac's length.

Demond Greene was a complete non-factor, besides another foul-plagued game. If Germany wants to be a medal contender in Beijing, Greene is going to have return to his '06 Worlds play; that's assuming Germany beats Puerto Rico.

Greece 88, Puerto Rico 63

Greece easily advances to the Olympics by rolling over another opponent in Athens. Greece took control of this game in the 2nd quarter. Papaloukas sparked the Greeks with his patented playmaking. Pushing the ball & passing the ball ahead in transition, and creating in the half-court, usually off pick/rolls. Theo ended with 10 assts.

Really like when Coach Giannakis goes with the backcourt of Papaloukas-Diamantidis-Spanoulis. Have three guys who can handle and create offense. And this trio was on the floor when they made their decisive run in the 3rd.

Barea started the 3rd for the injured Arroyo, and kept Puerto Rico within relative striking distance with his attacking off the bounce. Barea was the only Puerto Rican in double figures.

Greece took care of business maybe even better than expected. In four games, they beat each opponent by no less than 20 points. The sterling defensive play was per usual, but the offense looks much better than last year. They have two more important offensive options that they did not have last year in Fotsis & Big Sofo, and are a serious medal contender in Beijing.

3rd Place Game: Germany vs. Puerto Rico

This is for the final spot in Beijing. P.R. is already in a hole because Arroyo looks doubtful for Sunday's game with a injury. Barea can pick up some of his slack, though Ayuso really needs a big game. P.R. can match up well with Kaman with Santiago & Ramos. But like with every other squad, they have no one to deal with Dirk. Ricky Sanchez might be the best bet. Going with Germany, think they've looked more impressive this last week, and their interior defense & rebounding is stronger.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tourney--Quarters Preview

A quick glance at the quarterfinal round. Besides the Greece-NZ matchup, think the other 3 games have the potential to be competitive.

Greece vs. New Zealand:
Greece should have no issues dispatching the Kiwis at home. They can focus all their defensive pressure at Kirk Penney, since he's been the only threat for N.Z. so far, besides some minor help from Pero Cameron. Would be a stunning upset if Greece somehow lost.

Croatia vs. Canada:
Croatia definitely has a huge edge in the backcourt with the 5-headed monster of Kus, M. Popovic, Tomas, Ukic, and a returning Planinic. Canada's frontline is still solid with Levon Kendall, Joel Anthony & Dave Thomas, though they obviously don't protect the basket as well without Dalembert. Should match up well vs. Croatian bigs Nikola Prkacin, Marko Banic, & Stanko-nia Barac.

Got to go with Croatia. Not only does Team Canada seem to be in disarray, just have more confidence in Croatia consistently producing on the offensive end as opposed to Canada's directionless Oh-ffense relying on a 36-year old Rowan Barrett to bail them out. Though Canada does have enough talent to make this game tight.

Germany vs. Brazil:
Germany has to be considered the favorite with their impressive play so far, but Brazil has enough juice to make the Germans sweat. Brazil does have a collection of solid big bodies (Splitter, JP Batista, Araujo, Becker) to challenge the huge frontcourt of Germany. Brazil has the ability to keep up with Germany on the boards.

Like most teams around the world, Brazil has no one to check Dirk. Splitter might be the best bet, but I would only use him in short doses so as to keep him out of foul trouble. The Splitter-Kaman matchup should be very intriguing.

Germany has to keep track of Marcelo Machado, because he's always a danger to get lethally hot from long-range and he can end the Germans' summer trip real quick if he gets rolling. Brazil probably has the advantage on the perimeter with Huertas, Garcia, & Machado. With their two explosive guards they should look to push the pace more. Huertas & Garcia are effective in playing this style, and this worked in stretches in the '06 Worlds.

Team Germany could need more offensive input from primary perimeter threat Demond Greene, who was a total non-factor vs. NZ because of early foul trouble. Splitter might be able to contain Kaman, so the Germans might need scoring help for Dirk from the perimeter.

If Germany can keep the ball movement working like they have, they are tough to stop. Brazil can win this game, but have to go with the Germans simply because there is no answer for Dirk on the other side.

Slovenia vs. Puerto Rico:
Expect this to be a close game. Puerto Rico comes into this game on the heels of a lackluster effort vs. Croatia. Though not uncommon for Puerto Rico to lapse into sloppy, out-o-control play. This will happen when you often give Arroyo, Barea, & Ayuso free reign to do as they please.

Rasho has been a force this summer, and continues to be one of the best bigs in int'l play. Like at last year's Eurobasket, Rasho has been the key to Slovenia's defensive attack, and a factor on offensive with his baby hooks. Rasho is shooting 20/28 thru 2 games, while thoroughly outplaying Dalembert in the Slovenia-Canada tilt.

Great matchup between backcourts with Jaka Lakovic, G. Dragic, Becirovic, D. Lorbek facing off against Barea, Arroyo, & Ayuso. Will be interesting to see if PJ Ramos & Dan Santiago can somehow neutralize Rasho.

Have to go with Slovenia because of their strong play all summer, and their defense continues to be sturdy. But P.R. matches up fairly well with Slovenia--backcourts are a wash, and Puerto Rico does have the potential to go at Rasho with three 7-footers (Santiago, Ramos, & Sanchez).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tourney--Day 3 Recap

Also see: FIBA Olympic Qualifying: Quarterfinal Preview

Rundown of Day 3 (7/16) slate of games in Athens:

Germany 89, New Zealand 71
- Not surprisingly, Germany's game plan was to establish Dirk & Kaman in the post. Dirk was deadly with his turnarounds all-game, threw in a few 3pts. as well (3/6 on 3pts.). Dirk's line: 35 pts on 14/22, 7 rebs, 3 assts & 2 blks. Liked his aggression all game, especially on one play where he had the ball on the right sideline in transition, then went crossover to the middle of the floor, & drove the lane hard for a hard flush.

- Best ball-movement I've think I've ever seen from Team Deutschland. Dirk & Kaman both passed the ball out of the post well; Dirk had two nice feeds where he found Kaman roaming. The rest of team followed suit, and the ball moved crisply with very little sticking.

- Kaman had 20 pts on 8/12 in only 21 minutes of floor time. Hit some face-up jumpers, had a few put-backs off off. rebs, made some plays off of pick/rolls with Hamann, and finished some nice post moves. Also, teamed with Dirk & Femerling to deter the Tall Blacks of much success inside of 10 feet.

- Kirk Penney was hitting everything he threw up early. Hitting quick pull-ups or set shots, Penney single-handedly kept NZ afloat with 29 pts with 5 3pts. Germany's defense picked up in the 2nd quarter--they located Penney better--holding New Zealand to 7 points in the quarter & only 45 pts the last 3 quarters. New Zealand rarely looked for anything within 12 feet.

- Undersized bruiser Pero Cameron was the only other factor for the Tall Blacks and helped Penney early with some perimeter makes in the 1st quarter. But Pero's effectiveness was soon cut short by foul trouble--he was just giving up too much length when trying to guard Kaman or Dirk.

Greece 89, Brazil 69
- Game had a ragged flow and was tough to follow in spots, probably due to a combined 52 fouls between the teams. But this is the type of game you expect from Greece, as they love to muck up the rhythm.

- Turned the pressure up in the 2nd quarter with extended pressure & traps. This looked like the Greece circa '06--causing havoc & turnovers (forced 15 TOs). Brazil was having a hell of a time trying to run their offense, and when they could get shots up, they were held to 42.5% shooting (5/19 3pts). Also, Greece had tremendous ball-pressure in the half-court all game--Diamantidis & Spanoulis were particularly dogged. The only thing wrong with Greece's defense--all the aggressive pressure led to 32 fouls.

- Antonis Fotsis continues his strong play this summer--18 pts on 7/11 & 10 rebs--and just magnifies how much Team Hellas missed him last summer on the offensive end. He hit some jumpers (2/5 3pts), hit the glass (10 rebs, 4 off) and finished at the rim---two plays in particular: a nice alley-oop from Papaloukas & a impressive follow-up slam in traffic.

- V. Spanoulis was his usual aggressive self on both ends of the floor--14 pts, 4 assts, & 2 stls. He was looking to attack off the dribble on offense & was ballhawk on the other.

- Wasn't just about Fotsis & Spanoulis, got good contributions down the rotation. Diamantidis & Papaloukas with their playmaking & defense, Zisis & Bouroussis with some scoring, Tsartsaris & Vasilopoulos with defense.

- T. Splitter was the best player for Brazil today with 20 pts on 7/12, 7 rebs & 2 blks. His footwork has gradually gotten better over the last few years, and has turned himself into a solid offensive player. The touch on his shot still needs work--kinda stiff arms the ball--but his hook shots are effective, used the hook well today. Also, was solid as usual on the defensive end.

- Though guards M. Huertas & A. Garcia had issues with the Greece pressure defense, they were able to draw fouls--Huertas was 9/10 on ft line, Garcia was 8/10. Brazil got to the line 44 times, but only got 30 to fall; Brazil's foul shooting has been a bugaboo in the past.

In other action
In a game a lot closer than expected Canada rallied to beat Korea 79-77 and advanced to play Croatia in the quarters. But the biggest storyline surrounding Team Canada on Wednesday was the departure of Sam Dalembert. The details are kinda spotty, but it sounds like Sammy had a falling out with Leo Rautins that was more than just Sammy's poor outing vs. Rasho.

Croatia handled Puerto Rico easier than expected, 95-81. Croatia once again got strong play from their deep & versatile backcourt. New Raptor Roko Ukic filled in for injured Zoran Planinic, and Croatia did not skip a beat--Ukic finished with 12 pts, 6 rebs, & 5 assts. SG/SF Marko Tomas had another strong game with 15 pts, while combo guard Davor Kus stayed solid with 15 of his own. Croatia was dealt a minor blow with Damir Markota suffering a knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of the competition. But do have N. Prkacin & Banic to step up on the frontline to cover for the loss of Damir.

Up next are the quarterfinals on Friday - here are the matchups:
- Greece vs. New Zealand
- Slovenia vs. Puerto Rico
- Germany vs. Brazil
- Croatia vs. Canada

Based on how things have gone to date, Greece and Croatia should be big favorites, with Germany and Slovenia being solid favorite. Puerto Rico is probably the underdog with the best shot of pulling off the upset.

The semifinals - when two Beijing spots will be clinched - are on Saturday, and the bracket matchup is in the order listed above: Greece would play Slovenia and Germany would play Croatia if form holds. Should be an intriguing weekend in Athens.

For more analysis, see our complete preview of the quarterfinals

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.