Jonas Valanciunas, Team Lithuania standout since 2011 (image courtesy FIBA)

FIBA World Cup: Competitors for Team USA

Everyone knows Team USA has had favorite status for the 2014 FIBA World Cup locked up since probably the final buzzer of the Olympic gold-medal game in 2012. And despite strong showings in a handful of exhibition matches thus far, the Americans cannot enter the big tournament complacently. After all, once the knockout round is reached, one poor quarter could be enough to result in a loss, force the USA to qualify for the 2016 Olympics through the FIBA Americas tournament and, in the short term, turn international basketball on its head.

So who if anyone can stop the red, white and blue juggernaut? Let’s consider the possibilities…

All other Group C contenders – As though the monster needed another break, the FIFA selection process was kind indeed to Team USA through to the finals. Consider Group A: The six teams there include hosts/FIFA ranked no. 2 in the world Spain, 2013 Eurobasket champions France, 2014 FIBA Asia champions Iran, no.10 ranked Brazil, and 2013 FIBA Africa champion Egypt. Leaving aside the prospective 0-5 Egypt which took the African tournament after starting out 0-3 thanks a bizarre format which allowed every team to advance to the tournament round, *that’s* a so-called Group of Death – and a better quintet than one could cobble together from groups C and D.

In addition, safely tucked away in Group B and thus meeting the USA before a championship game are world no. 3 Argentina, no. 5 Serbia and the tournament’s single biggest X-factor in Croatia.

By comparison, USA’s competition in pool play includes Turkey (FIFA’s no. 7, entered World Cup via wild card), Finland (no. 39, entered with wild card bid backed by Rovio), Dominican Republic (no. 26, fourth-place finisher in the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament), Ukraine (no. 45, placed fifth in Eurobasket 2013) and New Zealand (no. 19, finished no. 2 in the 2013 FIBA Oceania tournament).

No offense to these teams, but the safe assumption is a 5-0 run in the first stage. To mentally squint and juuuuust picture an upset, the second game could see Turkey – fairly humdrum in friendlies leading up to Spain – surprise the US with … nah. Or maybe the final game of group play, when Ukraine head coach Mike Fratello’s wide knowledge of the USA’s will allow him to … to realize that Team USA has no deep weaknesses.

Assuming that the US does indeed enter round two in the no. 1 seed from Group C, they would likely have to face up in the knockout stage against…

Lithuania – A week ago, we’d be thinking “No Kleiza? No problem.” The Greens return enough steady Team Lithuania players plus a bona fide all-tournament player in Jonas Valanciunas to pose a serious threat in a one-game meeting with any side in this World Cup. Kleiza aside, Lithuania’s team continuity is enviable by all but Spain: Nine players from the 2013 Eurobasket runners-up were named for the 12-man roster in this tournament.

Thus far, the continuity – and the amazing Valanciunas – is in full evidence for Lithuania, with a run of 12 consecutive friendly-match wins run off before a pair of losses to Slovenia and a scary-looking Bojan Bogdanovic-led Team Croatia. The team’s performance a week ago seemed more representative for this World Cup; in the four-team Huawei Cup tournament, Team Lithuania’s three wins in three matches (including the final against Slovenia) were characterized by crucial halftime adjustments in tactics and comeback wins.

Plus Valanciunas. Have I mentioned Valanciunas? Right now, the man is capable of this sort of damage:

Unfortunately, a serious dent to Team Lithuania’s plans beyond pool play was announced yesterday: Starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis will miss the entire tournament due to a shoulder injury sustained in the Slovenia game. As Team USA has shown in their friendly matches this month, the biggest mismatch the red, white and blue can boast against any World Cup squad is in backcourt speed; without the quickness of Kalnietis, Lithuania may still fare decently against its Group D competition (Australia, Slovenia, Angola, Mexico, South Korea), but upsetting the Olympic champs just got tougher.

Historically speaking, the Argentina roster lives in interesting times. The brief take: On paper, this is one talented side which comprises a half-dozen Olympic gold medalists together with the leaders of Team Argentina at the 2013 FIBA Americas, guys like 27-year-old Selem Safar and the Rubio-esque 23-year-old Facundo Campazzo.

But the games aren’t played on paper, as the cliché goes, and this World Cup seems too early for Argentina to blend the disparate halves. A more-detailed profile of the state of Team Argentina may be read via the link.

In contrast to their South American rivals, the timing of this World Cup couldn’t be better for Brazil. While Team USA simply had too much weaponry against Brazil in their friendly match earlier this month, the choice to include extra bigs on the 12-man roster proves that USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski takes the threat of teams with copious skilled big men (Brazil, Spain, France to some extent) seriously enough.

Team Brazil has thus far produced underwhelming results in friendly competition, topping the likes of Iran, Slovenia and Mexico, but losing to top-tier squads such as Argentina, Lithuania and the aforementioned USA. Undeniable, however, has been the fantastic ball movement and general interplay among Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao.

Certainly not the speediest team in this World Cup, Brazil’s interior defense has served the team well in friendlies, allowing fewer points per game than similarly-styled World Cup teams Serbia and Greece, and a slower-paced game in the semi-final round and championship match (the latter the sole opportunity to face Team USA) would nevertheless allow wiggle room for an upset – assuming as well that stuff like this can somehow be prevented.

Of course, advancement to the final would presumably require going through that other team in the bracket with a literal Big Three in the frontcourt, Spain.
Ah yes, Spain – the prospective favorites to emerge from the Group A/B end of the bracket. One could easily pick La Roja to win a single FIFA World Cup championship game against Team USA. But that’s the subject for another column…

Next: The case for Spain.

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Tags: Argentina Brazil FIBA World Cup Lithuania

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