Team-by-team analysis: World contenders
Now that Team USA has finished 5-0 in the Preliminary Round of FIBA World Championship, Coach Mike Krzyzewski must feel like he is going from Duke's non-conference schedule right to the "Sweet Sixteen." Starting with Sunday's Round-of-16 meeting with Australia, every game becomes a single elimination scenario -- "one-and-done."
Let's look ahead to the rest of the World Championship and the remaining 16 teams:
Round-of-16 opponent: France
Long dominant on the continent of Africa, Angola finished at 3-2 in the preliminary round of Group B. More importantly, it came away with much-earned respect. A 10-point loss to Spain was followed by a historic triple-overtime loss to Germany and Dirk Nowitzki. Playing ferocious defense, Angola dominated the rest of Group B and will provide a Tony Parker-less French squad with a major test. My predition: Angola becomes the darling of the remaining eight teams.
Round-of-16 opponent: New Zealand
After some uneven play in the "friendlies" leading up to the World Championship, Argentina is on a roll. It toyed with the opposition in Group A, playing Manu Ginobili only 21 minutes a game. Four players are averaging 13 points or more.
Andres Nocioni has picked up where he left off, shooting 55 percent from the 3-point line after averaging 22 points in the playoffs for the Bulls last season. This is a team which will not beat itself, playing together for the better part of a decade. Its expected semifinal matchup with Spain should be a hard-fought battle; the Spaniards have defeated Argentina in six straight games.
Round-of-16 opponent: United States
Australia, which ensured a spot in the eighth-finals with a blowout win over the worst team in the tournament, Qatar, comes out of the deepest prelim pool in the tournament. In fact, Brazil, which extended Team USA during the exhibition tour, finished 1-4 and is out of the tournament.
Australia's 30-and-over veterans Sam McKinnon, Jason Smith and C.J. Bruton surround the NBA's 2005 No. 1 pick, Andrew Bogut, inside and provide a vast amount of international experience. Australia's two losses to Greece and Turkey went right to the wire, and that in itself should make them dangerous. Additionally, its team defense has been outstanding, and credit that to the Aussies' always scrappy play.
Round-of-16 opponent: Greece
Yao Ming has been the most dominant individual player in this tournament. After a summer of recovery from a broken bone in his left foot, suffered in April, Yao has been unstoppable, finishing with 36 points in a win over Slovenia. The win ensured China a berth in the second round and some positive momentum going into the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Point play has usually been China's problem in the past, and the lack of solid play-making will be exploited by Greece's outstanding defenders in the back court. Wang Shipeng, a veteran of Chinese National team play, has shot the ball very well and can keep the pressure off Yao inside.
Round-of-16 opponent: Angola
One of the pre-tournament favorites (although not in my eyes), France has sorely missed Parker's ball-handling and scoring. Coach Claude Bergeaud has built France's team in the past around tough, stingy defense, and that has been true in this World Championship. They have held opponents to 38-percent shooting, third best in the entire tournament. Unfortunately for Les Blues, it has also been anemic offensively, shooting 38 percent from the field and 21 percent from behind the arc.
While Boris Diaw has had moments of brilliance in this tournament, the NBA's Most Improved Player in 2005-06 has not been able to carry the offensive load. More disappointing has been the play of Mickael Pietrus, who has not cracked double figures in five games and is shooting 21 percent from the field.
Round-of-16 opponent: Nigeria
Germany finished Group B play at 4-1, suffering only an 82-61 defeat at the hands of Spain. Dirk Nowitzki, who led the Germans to a silver medal in the 2005 European Championships, has his team on his back again and is averaging 24.8 points and 10 rebounds a game. His 47 points in a triple-overtime win over feisty Angola was the fifth most in World Championship history.
Round-of-16 opponent: China
Greece, the defending European Champions, is the best team in the world that American basketball fans know very little about. It is a team that is coached by one of its country's basketball heroes, Panagiotis Yannakis. A Jerry Sloan clone, Yannakis' teams play with a passion and intelligence that Sloan would admire.
A deep backcourt has been weakened by the injury to Nikos Zisis in the win over Brazil. Zisis was hit with what seemed to be an intentional elbow from the Cleveland Cavs' Anderson Varejao and will miss the rest of the tournament.
Fortunately, Yanakis has two-time Euroleague Defensive Player of the Year and the heart and soul of this team, Dimitrios Diamantidis, to fall back on, as well as brilliant playmaker Theo Papaloukas. On the front line, Lazaros Papadopoulos plays his best in big games and Antonios Fotsis is the team's leading scorer and is a classic inside-out European power forward.
Of the tournament's four best teams, Greece has the toughest road to the Gold, including a likely semifinal matchup with Team USA.
Round-of-16 opponent: Lithuania
While the Italians have a bunch of unfamiliar names, 6-foot-6, 20-year old Marco Belinelli has continued to open NBA eyes with his outstanding shooting and fearlessness. With Andrea Bargnani and 6-foot-9, 18-year-old phenom, Danilo Gallinari, Belinelli gives the Italians three cornerstone players for the next decade.
Round-of-16 opponent: Italy
Like Italy, Lithuania is rebuilding without some familiar international names like Jasikevicius and Siskauskas. Point guard play is spotty, but Lithuania has a distinct advantage inside with the Lavrinovic twins, former Spurs draft pick, Robertas Javtokas and the 76ers' Darius Songaila. Sharp shooter Arvydas Macijauskas has lived for these games throughout his career.
Round-of-16 opponent: Argentina
With point guard Mark Dickel back from a drug suspension, the New Zealand Tall Blacks won their final two games over Japan and Panama, and get the distinction of taking on juggernaut Argentina. Six-foot-seven forward Pero Cameron is one of the best players in the world few have heard of. However, another win for New Zealand is too much to ask.
Round-of-16 opponent: Germany
Despite poor shooting throughout the preliminary round, Nigeria has scrapped its way into a second-round matchup with Germany. Ironically, Nigeria's coach, former NBA guard Sam Vincent, will be sitting on the Dallas Mavericks' bench this coming season as an assistant coach.
Ime Udoka, averaging 15 points a game, leads a parade of former NCAA players on the Nigeria roster. Nine are American born. Former Oklahoma Sooners' guard Ebi Ere is averaging 12 points a game, and former Texas Longhorn Gabe Mouneke is right behind him with 11 a game.
Round-of-16 opponent: Spain
Here's a given: NBA fans won't be laughing at Darko Milicic any longer. After finishing the NBA season on an upswing with the Orlando Magic, Darko has continued his solid play in this tournament. The 21-year-old, who is only six months older than Magic teammate Dwight Howard, is averaging 16 points and eight rebounds and has, at times, shown dominance.
Serbia, like Italy and Turkey, has overhauled its roster and has eight players under 25-years old. And, while the two-time defending World Champion won't successfully defend its title this year, it has had some impressive moments, including a close loss to Argentina. Young shooting guard and NBA prospect Uros Tripkovic has been spotty, but veteran Igor Rakocevic has shown why he is one of the best scoring guards in Europe.
Round-of-16 opponent: Turkey
Slovenia, to the surprise of few, did not play up to its capability this week. One of the more talented teams in the tournament, the Slovenians are known for not defending, giving up 49-percent shooting from the field in the tournament and not playing cohesively. Despite five NBA players on its roster, Slovenia's two most consistent players are its Euroleague back court of Jaka Lakovic and Sani Becerovic.
Round-of-16 opponent: Serbia & Montenegro
For Spain, unlike Serbia and Montenegro, the future is now. With a scoring margin of 28 points, this veteran team could compete in the NBA. The Raptors' Jose Calderon, who led the NBA in assists per 48 minutes last year, teams with Juan Carlos Navarro to form one of the tournament's most electrifying back courts. Only a multi-million dollar buy-out has kept Navarro out of the NBA.
Not surprisingly, Pau Gasol is one of the tournament's leading scorers and rebounders. And one of the by-products of the Raptors' hiring of Euroleague executive Maurizio Gheradini has been the signing of 6-9 forward Jorge Garbajosa. The junkyard dog Garbajosa will provide much needed support for Chris Bosh and No.1 pick Andrea Bargnani on the Raps' front line.
Round-of-16 opponent: Slovenia
Turkey, at 4-1, is one of the surprises of the World Championship, if only because they have played without NBA players Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu. Veteran coach Bogdan Tanjevic has gone with a younger roster that includes four members of this summer's under-20 European silver medalists.
Wildly inconsistent guard Serkan Erdogan, who followed up a zero point performance against Qatar with a 30-point show versus an excellent Greek defense, leads Turkey in scoring. The Bucks' 6-foot-9, 19-year-old Ersan Ilyasova, who has fought off serious ankle issues in the past, has played well and is part of the bright future of Turkish basketball.
Round-of-16 opponent: Australia
So far, so good for Team USA. In the absence of a major letdown, they should advance to the gold medal game next Sunday. A tough Greek team not withstanding, any loss before next Sunday would put USA Basketball right back at square one. With talent, depth and great leadership so far, it is not likely to happen. In fact, if it can successfully launch its quest for the 2008 Olympic gold now, this young USA team has a chance to have a profound impact on basketball in America. With so many players in the early stages of their careers -- and help on the way from the likes of Greg Oden and others -- it's a strong possibility.
Semi-finals: USA over Greece; Spain over Argentina
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