How far can Bojan Bogdanovic, Croatia go? (image courtesy FIBA)

FIBA World Cup: Much-watch first round games

Are you ready for some a lot of basketball? With teams playing five games in six days to get things started in the 2014 FIBA World Cup – that’s 60 matches in the tournament’s first week. So how can a basketball fan willing to soak in as much of this competition be sure to catch the most meaningful games?

Glad you asked. In terms of competitiveness and/or influence over the remainder of this World Cup going forward, Road to the Association has compiled a top 10 list of must-see TV. Have the following dates and times bookmarked on your calendar (and probably programmed for recording if you’re on the US West Coast).

August 30, 6:30 am EST: Croatia vs Philippines. Three games tip off the World Cup; we’re going with the Croatia-Philippines over Angola-Korea and Ukraine-Dominican Republic due mainly to the tournament’s X-factor from Europe. While Croatia would appear to be an in-transition squad, the future national team “Big Three” of Bojan Bogdanovic (Brooklyn Nets), Dario Saric (Anadolu Efes) and Mario Hezonja (FC Barcelona) might just use this tournament as a springboard for the heights Team Croatia will reach by the end of this decade – this team will surprise. As for Philippines, well, they may bring a traditionally fearsome 13th man but not too much else.

August 30, noon EST: France vs Brazil – How about an early test for two top 10 ranked teams competing in this World Cup’s “Group of Death”? The outcome of this game will set the tone for Group A (which also includes Spain, Serbia, Iran and Egypt) and for the elimination round by the time the late games start.

Though utterly disappointing in the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament, the Brazil roster did not include Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs), Anderson Varejao (Cleveland Cavaliers), Nene (Washington Wizards), Leandro Barbosa (Golden State Warriors), etc. For this tournament, they’ve reassembled the band that finished fifth in the 2012 Olympics. On the other side are the surprisingly deep and defensive-minded France, playing without arguably the two most important pieces to the Eurobasket gold medal-winning team in Tony Parker (San Antonio) and Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls); this one should be worth a watch to see how Boris Diaw (San Antonio) and Ian Mahinmi (Indiana Pacers) respond to a lot of interior play by Brazil’s triple towers.

August 31, 7:30 am EST: Argentina vs Croatia – If Croatia is a team in transition, Argentina is undergoing full-on mitosis with half the roster still around the 2004 Olympic gold medal-winning team (!) and another half of twentysomethings looking to be handed the keys. This day two match will infer much about the fates of these national teams in this World Cup.

August 31, 11:30 am EST: Serbia vs France – There just isn’t a break in Group A, and France starts off a double-barrel introduction to the competition: Les Bleus follow a match against Brazil’s tall finesse game with the day two meeting against a potentially punishing Team Serbia. The Serbs return no fewer than four natural centers – Nenad Krstic (CSKA Moscow), Miroslav Raduljica (Milwaukee Bucks), Rasko Katic (Red Star Belgrade) and Vladimir Stimac (Bayern Munich) – from their 2013 Eurobasket bid. In that tournament, Serbia had the greatest difficulties with quicker sides such as Slovenia and Montenegro but were playing without mercurial point guard Milos Teodosic (CSKA Moscow); Milos could be enough of a sparkplug to get his side past a Team France likely to be slower than those with Tony Parker – on the other hand, this could be a game for Nicolas Batum (Portland Trail Blazers) to shine.

August 31, 3:30 pm EST: Turkey vs USA – Possible upset? Not likely, but this is likely to be the stiffest competition Team USA faces in pool play.

September 1, 4 pm EST: Brazil vs Spain – Spain, picked by most to emerge from the Group A/B bracket to face off against Team USA, faces its first true challenge of the World Cup on day three with the side which present the most matchup problems. Aside from having something of an answer to Pau ‘n’ Marc (Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies) plus Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City) with their own three NBA bigs, Brazil’s slower backcourt game are depending on a boost from Marcelinho Huertas (FC Barcelona)’s experience in the Spanish national league against Real Madrid’s trio – and wicked pick-and-roll sets – of Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Felipe Reyes (Real Madrid).

A lot would have to go right for Spain to actually win this one, but with a loss to round France on day one could certainly sharpen Brazil’s focus in an early must-have match.

September 2, 12:30 pm EST: Australia vs Lithuania – Now here’s a great clash-of-styles match that reminds one why we watch the World Cup. Australia’s methodical play in the halfcourt was enough to take out France in a four-team tournament in mid-April, while Lithuania brings a roster which includes the requisite deadshot jumpshooters, a classic rim-attacker in Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors) and Ksistof Lavrinovic (Valencia BC), who looks even better with as a starter with LIETUVA across his chest than as a sixth man in his seven Euroleague seasons. Throw in the possibilities of a star turn for Dante Exum (Utah Jazz) and the Group D top spot at stake, and you’ve got yourself one near-classic.

September 3, 2 pm EST: Greece vs Croatia – Greece will likely enter this game 3-0 after games against Senegal, Philippines and Puerto Rico; also by this time, the rather overlooked Croatians will have revealed themselves to be quite a talented lot while any hopeful Philadelphia 76ers fans (there’s got to be a couple) will be buoyed by Saric’s play. Likely to be a critical match for knockout-round positioning – not to mention YouTube clips with Giannis Antetokounmpo out there…

September 3, 4 pm EST: Spain vs France. Can you say history?

World Cup game four of five for these sides will surely be remembered by European basketball aficionados, no matter the outcome.

September 4, 2:30 pm EST: Lithuania vs Slovenia – On the final day of pool play, both Lithuania and Slovenia should have top-three positions in Group D locked up along with Australia. Yet by the same token, this match should be crucial in determining positioning, i.e. the first- and second-place finishers in Group D would avoid facing the presumed Group C no. 1 seed Team USA until the semi-final round.

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Tags: Croatia FIBA World Cup France Lithuania Spain

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