[Editor's note: The Tournament of the Americas Olympic qualifier begins today in Las Vegas, where two berths for the 2008 Olympics in China are on the line. The first round of play will feature the 10 teams divided into two groups. Four teams in each group will advance to the second round after playing round robin in their respective group.]
Two teams in Group A have previously won medals in this tournament and are favorites to get the top spots in this group: Argentina and Puerto Rico. Two teams have never reached the podium but have shown remarkable improvement recently: Mexico and Uruguay. One team, without its most important players, does not look like a serious contender: Panama.
Yet, Argentina and Puerto Rico cannot count solely on their history. The reigning Olympic champions, already diminished by the absence of their stars, could also be without NBA player Carlos Delfino, who suffered a knee injury last week during the "Tuto" Marchand Cup in Puerto Rico. And the homesters played so badly there that Mexico, Uruguay and even Panama have renewed hopes.
Here's a breakdown of the five teams in Group A:
The current Olympic champs come into the tournament in an awkward position from a talent standpoint. Four of their regular starters (Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and Juan "Pepe" Sanchez), and two other top players (Walter Herrmann and Ruben Wolkowyski) won't participate. This puts the pressure on Luis Scola and Pablo Prigioni to perform extremely well.
Nonetheless, the team coached by Sergio Hernandez can count on other lesser-known names who can play competitively at the top level. Paolo Quinteros, Matias Sandes, Federico Kammerichs, Diego Logrippo, Roman Gonzalez and Leo Gutierrez should all shine on a team that knows how to defend and attack, as well as follow instructions and respect a game plan.
Argentina is the heavy favorite to win this group and they should be fighting Brazil and USA for one of the two berths in the 2008 Olympic Games.
Once again, internal problems amongst federation officials and some of its most important players will keep Mexico from taking its best players to the competition. In the beginning, there was talk of the return of NBA player Eduardo Najera, and the debut of Earl Watson. But this didn't materialize because athletes and administrators weren't able to reach an agreement.
However, there certainly seems to be improvement in the coaching department, thanks to the signing of former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. He has been able to change the dynamics of a traditionally slow team, which will now play a faster, counter-attacking game. Physical condition will be the key to the success of this scheme.
Mexico will be an interesting team to watch and will give more than one team a run for its money, but the Mexico doesn't seem to have enough firepower to get a ticket to China.
Mexico's gain in coach Richardson is Panama's main loss. Richardson coached Panama from 2005-2007 and taught the team to play with great discipline in the Dominican Republic two years ago, helping them qualify for the last World Cup. In this tournament, it will be extremely hard for Panama to make it to the second round.
Panama is another team that will be without key players for the tournament. Jair Peralta, Michael Hicks, Dionisio Gomez, Ruben Garces and Eric Cardenas all came up with different excuses for not playing. So Danilo Pinnock, Antonio Garcia, Jamal Levy and Jaime Lloreda will try to keep Panama's hopes alive.
Center Daniel Santiago quit the team last week -- one week before the tournament -- and left officials, the coaching staff and fans perplexed. His announcement also had a demoralizing effect on his former teammates, as Puerto Rico was unable to win a single game in the Genaro "Tuto" Marchand Cup, which took place in the team's own country. They lost to Canada, Brazil and Argentina.
Carlos Arroyo, Jose Juan Barea, Filiberto Rivera, Larry Ayuso and Rick Apodaca can all play a very accurate game at top speed. But that sometimes means they tend to abandon their game plans too quickly in favor of looking for one-on-one situations when confronted with good defense.
Another big weakness is their lack of height and size -- only Peter John Ramos has the contexture of a true center. That also means that the team is quite inefficient in the rebounding department.
They should hang with Argentina in this group, but it looks like there is no ticket to Beijing for them in Vegas, and they will probably need to play in the World Pre-Olympic next year.
This is a team that has developed dramatically the last few years. Esteban Batista, who plays in the NBA, is Uruguay's "franchise" player, but others such as Nicolas Mazzarino, Martin Osimani and Mauricio Aguiar perform well in top European competition.
Uruguay took home the bronze medal in the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, and the team has beaten almost every professional team on its tour in Mexico.
Talent-wise, they are still one step behind Argentina and Puerto Rico, but the discipline they play with will help them. Uruguay has a good chance of advancing to the second round, finishing third in the group with at least two victories.
Carlos Morales currently is ESPN International's NBA analyst for its Spanish-language broadcasts. He has coached for over two decades in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and coached Puerto Rico's national team at the highest levels of international competition.