World Championship: Group B preview
Group B presents two of the favorites to be in the final four of this world championship: Brazil and the United States.
The Brazilians are seen as the most complete team in the tournament, with all of their players currently in the NBA or on the European circuit. And although Team USA is not even a shadow of the team that clinched the gold medal in Beijing in 2008, the Americans are always dangerous, and more so in a tournament in which there is no clear-cut favorite due to the absence of many stellar players.
In this group, the likely Cinderella would be Iran, which qualified as a "local" team in the Asian region, while Croatia, a former powerhouse, will look to renew its past glories.
Coach: Ruben Magnano
Analysis: If there's one team that could be seen as a solid favorite in this tournament, it's Brazil.
The team earned a gold medal in the FIBA Americas championship of 2009 and returns intact; Nene Hilario, one of the most powerful centers in the NBA and in the hemisphere, was added to the team but will miss the event because of an injury suffered during a friendly game in Spain.
Even with the talent displayed by Marcelinho Huertas, Leandro Barbosa and Splitter, Varejao is still the key to this team, no matter which way we look at it. In his participation in a recent friendly tournament in Logroņo, Spain, Varejao's defense was the factor that kept Brazil in the game after the absence of Nene and Splitter.
In the highly physical international play, there may be no one better than the Cleveland Cavaliers power forward to keep a team together and provide scoring opportunities for Splitter and Barbosa.
The only gray area is in the team's adjustment to Magnano, who replaces Spain's Moncho Monsalve, who took the helm in 2008, failed to qualify the team to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and then had to leave the job because of health concerns.
Anyone would say that changing coaches midway through an Olympic cycle is hard and that it affects the players, who probably got used to a style of work and professional trust. And this is where Magnano may run into problems.
Coach: Josip Vrankovic
Key players: Marko Banic, Ante Tomic
Analysis: After clinching the sixth position in Eurobasket, the qualifying tournament for this World Cup, Croatia returns to this tournament after a 12-year absence.
Vrankovic has summoned a group of young players that makes us think he will be using this event as a springboard to prepare for London 2012.
However, it would be difficult for Croatia to reach the second round because of the multiple injuries that have deprived it of having main player Stanko Barac on the floor. The bulk of the work will fall upon center Ante Tomic and Bilbao forward Marko Banic.
The glorious days of Toni Kukoc and the late Drazen Petrovic have been left behind. But Croatia's future looks bright, especially with the development of players from the U-19 team that came in third at last year's world championships.
Coach: Veselin Matic
Key players: Hamed Haddadi, Mohammadsamad Nikkah
Analysis: Perhaps the least known team of all, it has the best chance to become the Cinderella of this tournament.
Led by Haddadi, the Iranians have clinched their chance to go to Turkey after defending their gold medal at the FIBA Asia championship, where they defeated China 70-52. Two years earlier they had overtaken the Olympic qualifying tournament by beating the Chinese and, on that occasion, many people said their victory was unexpected.
"There is a great difference between then and now," said Haddadi, currently with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies.
The team is made up almost exclusively of players who participate only in the local Iranian tournament, which makes it difficult for us to know who will be supporting Haddadi. But if we are to believe statistics, then the 18 points averaged Nikkah in the Asian qualification are an indication that on any given night Iran might be a force against any quality rival in this stage.
For the time being, the Iranians should be in a position to fight for the top four in their zone, along with Brazil and maybe Slovenia.
Coach: Adel Tlatli
Key players: Amine Rzig, Mohamed Hdidane
Analysis: Tunisia is another one of the surprises in this FIBA 2010 World Championship.
The comments by Tlatli after his team defeated Cameroon 83-68 in the bronze-medal game in Afrobasket demonstrate this.
"This is the greatest achievement in Tunisian basketball ever" Tlatli told FIBAAfrica.com. "We don't know what to expect in Turkey, but we are going to do our best to represent our country and the African continent."
Tunisia has been preparing in the United States on its road to the World Cup, defeating Belgium and Ivory Coast, the team that came in second in the African qualifier, while losing to Finland.
The best players on the Tunisian team are Rzig and Hdidane. Rzig is a guard who plays in the Egyptian league and averaged 16.4 points at Afrobasket. He was the key figure in the bronze-medal game against Cameroon.
Hdidane is a forward who plays in the local Tunisian league and averaged 8.8 points in the World Cup qualifier.
Coach: Memi Becirovic
Key players: Jaka Lakovic, Goran Dragic
Analysis: Slovenia has been a source of young players for several years, first within the former Yugoslavia, and then on its own merit.
The strength of this team lies in its stature and ability. Lakovic is one of the best backcourt players in Europe. Add NBA player Goran Dragic and forward Sani Becirovic, and you have a quality team with good ballhandling skills and deep fundamentals that can go beyond the first round and perhaps into the quarterfinals.
As part of their preparation, Becirovic's guys played a friendly tournament in Maribor with their counterparts from Serbia, Russia and New Zealand.
"Our game improves week by week, and we are much more coordinated," Becirovic told FIBA.com.
Coach: Mike Krzyzewski
Analysis: The biggest challenge faced by this U.S. team is overcoming the inevitable comparisons with its predecessor, the gold-medal-winning squad in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Led by Durant and Billups, and with players of the caliber of Lamar Odom, the Americans face the challenge of establishing their own identity. After their demonstration in New York against a clearly inferior French squad, they have already been labeled a second-class team that will try to behave like a first-class unit and win the world championship.
Don't expect a lot of fancy plays or rebounds from the U.S. It is a relatively small team that lacks international experience and familiarity with FIBA rules. The Americans have a natural center in Tyson Chandler, a player who commits a lot of fouls, which will force Odom to play more minutes than expected in that position.
A few years ago, the fact that its roster was stocked with NBA players would have given Team USA a clear advantage. But basketball has become an international game, reflected by the presence of more than 90 international players in the NBA.
We should hope to see the Americans in the second round, although they might be upset in the first round. From there on they will be a big question mark, because the U.S. is planning to use the opening round to put the final touches on its integration as a team, and that might affect it in the long run.