The FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament tips off later today in Vegas. Here's our preview and power rankings for the ten competing teams.FORMAT
The first 2 spots qualify for the Olympics, spots 3-5 punch a ticket for the Pre-Olympic qualifier tournament next summer (12 teams for the last 3 spots).
Format goes like this: 10 teams split up into 2 groups of five. Opening round is round-robin -- play each team in group once -- and the team with the worst record in each group is dropped. The top 4 teams in each group advance to the 2nd round where they form one group of 8 teams, and you play each team from the opposite opening group once for 4 second round games. Combine the records of the 1st & 2nd round, top 4 teams advance to the all-important semifinals, which will determine the two teams who'll be guaranteed spots in Beijing. OVERVIEW
Brazil is really the only legit hope of denying Team USA a Gold medal this year & Brazil is looking to defend their '05 Americas title. They are capable of beating the US in a one-game scenario, and more than likely have two shots at trying to pull off the upset (prelims and finals). Don't totally sleep on Argentina -- even without some big names, could see this team giving the US trouble.... and I'm starting to come around on Canada....
Without further ado, our FIBA Americas Preview (in order of expected finish): 1) USA:
Key players: Everyone
If you've found your way to this site, I'm sure you're thoroughly familiar with Team USA's personnel, so we'll keep this short. The only area where the US is a little shaky is on the frontline. Only have 3 guys who are true post guys, so guys like Melo, Bron & Prince will have to spend some time at the 4. Don't foresee it being a big deal, though it will be interesting to see if Brazil & Canada can cause some problems, since both teams have solid, big frontlines.
Team USA added a few deadeyes to the roster this year in M Miller & Redd to strengthen their shooting, which will be tested with a likely steady diet of zone & sagging man. Actually, Team USA could be the best outside shooting team in this competition, at least one of the best.
We'll see how the team defense fares this year (covered USA's past defensive woes here
), but even if it's still mediocre, don't think it will matter too much since they have wide margin for error this summer. Expect them to go 10-0, and have a relatively easy Vegas Vacation with only Brazil being their main competition, and maybe Canada & Argentina making their games competitive for part of the game. 2) BRAZIL:
Players to watch: Nene; T. Splitter; L. Barbosa; M. Machado
Had high hopes going into the Worlds last year, but were one of the bigger underachievers. Though they were in the brutal Group C last year, and easily could have won a few more games. They are Team USA's main comp, and showed last year in the exhibition stage they can push the US to the brink & possibly beat them in a one-game scenario.
Even without Varejao & Araujo (neither has a pro contract at the moment), the Brazilian frontline is still formidable with Nene & Tiago Splitter on board. Also, recent Gonzaga bruiser JP Batista comes off the bench to provide some beef & underrated post skills. Both Nene & Splitter can defend on the block, and will hold their own vs. Amare, Dwight, & Tyson.
This team has the ability to push the pace with the speedsters in the backcourt like Barbosa, Huertas, & Garcia. I really think Brazil has to look to pressure the ball on the defensive end -- they have great speed across the board. I think they play better when they look to cause chaos -- it worked great vs. Greece last year.
PG Marcelo Huertas provides a nice spark off the bench with his speed & disruptiveness. Former Spur/Hornet Alex Garcia is another valuable combo guard who adds even more speed to the table for Brazil. Marcelo Machado was the MVP of the '05 Americas, and he is the designated sharpshooter for Brazil. Marcus Vinicius Viera, a recent Hornet draftee, is a multi-dimensional talent who's teams with Italian league vet Guilherme Giovannoni to solidify the SF position.
Really need to shore up their foul shooting--it absolutely killed them last year, especially late in games. They really did not shoot the 3pt well last year, but they do have capable shooters in Barbosa, Garcia, Giovannoni & Machado, so I don't expect a repeat of last year's poor shooting. Main question mark with this squad is they don't really have a true pure PG to run the squad. They have to find someone or some combo of guys to steer the offense if they want a shot at upsetting the US.3) ARGENTINA:
Key players: C. Delfino; L. Scola; P. Prigioni; P. Quinteros
For an already depleted Argentine squad (missing Manu, Nocioni, Fab Oberto, Pepe Sanchez, Herrmann), the recent knee injury to Delfino is not good news. Carlos re-injured his knee in Puerto Rico, and he might be missing some of the opening round games. I really feel like Delfino could be the breakout star of this tourney. Carlos played great last year at the Worlds, just great in every aspect of the game: shooting, defending, passing, & finishing. What really stood out about his play at the Worlds, was his ball-handling & passing off the dribble--he was like a point-forward, and it would be nice to see Coach Hernandez let him loose again this year.
Luis Scola is a flat-out beast, who was until recently the best post player in the world outside of the NBA. He's a force in the painted area either on the low block or high post, and always shoots at a high pct. Pablo Prigioni takes over the starting PG role from Pepe Sanchez, and is one of the top PGs over in Europe--great distributor, not much of a shooter, though. Veteran Federico Kammerichs is in the mold of Nocioni & Herrmann: Kammerichs is a strong, 6-8 combo forward who is aggressive on both ends & on the boards.
I have some questions about their shooting. If they want to run their patented flex with precision, they have to prove that they can consistently hit shots, or opposing teams will sag off into their passing & cutting lanes. Veteran SG Paolo Quinteros & Antonio Porta will be called upon to provide Argentina with a deep threat. Even without the majority of their big guns, this team is still mighty dangerous, and have a great shot of finishing ahead of Brazil.4) CANADA:
Key players: S. Dalembert; C. English; D. Brown; L. Kendall
Have underachieved the last few years in FIBA play (a putrid 9th place finish in '05), and Team Canada has been on shaky ground ever since Steve Nash opted for some well-deserved summer rest, and also since Canadian legend Leo Rautins took the head coaching reins from Jay Triano.
But things seem to be on the upswing lately, as evidenced by Canada's strong play in Puerto Rico last weekend. The last-minute additon of Sam Dalembert (recently naturalized in Canada) has added some depth to an underrated frontline, which also features former Pitt standout Levon Kendall & undersized PF Juan Mendez, who was one of the finest players on the Mid-Major scene during his tenure at Niagara. Back-up PF Dave Thomas is a another solid rebounder added to the mix, who is a top player in Australia.
Another key cog to the Canuck attack is former Hawaii star Carl English, a nice athlete who can stroke the ball from deep. English will be paired on the wing with defensive-minded Denham Brown, former UConn Husky & ex-Sonic. Ex-Razorback Olu Fautimi adds another athletic presence on the wings & is a solid rebounder for his size. Current Syracuse SG Andy Rautins (Leo's son) will be the designated zone-buster.
One big question mark for the Maple Leafers is the PG spot -- they really miss a certain someone here, and I ain't talkin' about Greg Newton. They rely heavily on former Fordham standout Jermaine Anderson, who is a good long-range shooter, but is more of a combo guard than true point.
This team has the frontline talent to crush the boards hard & provide interior defensive resistance, and they showcased their rebounding prowess in Puerto Rico. If this team can just get steady PG play, I think they can justify this Top 4 prediction. Or maybe this lofty prediction is just blind faith in Canada, since I just polished off a smoked meat sandwich (Schwartz's, of course) with a side of poutine, & washed it down with a Molson Export. Or maybe it's my blind allegiance to all things Leo Rautins since being mesmerized by his summer basketball camp lectures where he would drain flat-footed 30-footers while giving his speech while sporting the finest Perma-Mullet this side of Jack Sikma.5) PUERTO RICO:
Key players: C. Arroyo; J. Barea; L. Ayuso; PJ Ramos
The recent retirement of Daniel Santiago is an underrated blow to the Puerto Rican squad--Dan always did a nice job in FIBA play, and with the recent retirement of Puerto Rican legend Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, the PR frontline is in a transitional phase & left in the hands of the gigantic Ramos. The former Washington Wizard PJ Ramos has provided glimpses of solid post skills in the past, but he can never string any type of consistency together.
Do have a very dangerous backcourt though, thanks to the Arroyo-Barea-Ayuso troika. Larry Ayuso just knows how to score the ball, and can get extremely streaky in a NBA Jam type of way--Ayuso & Arroyo tied for 4th in scoring at the Worlds last year. While Arroyo has underachieved in the league, he's experienced in the international game, and of course orchestrated P.R.'s upset of the U.S. at the '04 Olympics. Former Hofstra standout Rick Apodaca & Filiberto Rivera add even more firepower to one of the deepest backcourts in the Tourney. Wouldn't be surprised if Puerto Rico went with a more up-tempo pace with their speedy backcourt.
I still have major questions about their frontcourt. I could see this team getting beat up on the boards because Ramos is not a real good rebounder for his size. Not too mention P.R. might lean on Denver Nugget draftee Ricky Sanchez to provide inside help. Problem is, Ricky is a 7-footer who wants to shoot 3pts. all day (which he does quite well), but he's ain't a good rebounder either. Scarppy Angelo Reyes is their only rugged rebounder. P.R.'s frontcourt woes could ultimately be the reason they slip out of the Top 5 in favor of a team like Uruguay or Mexico.6) MEXICO:
Key players: A. Lever-Pedroza; O. Quintero; R. Beck; H. Llamas
"Cuarenta minutos de Infierno" is what it's all about. Nolan Richardson will try to work magic once again like he did with Panama at the '05 Americas, by installing his fast-paced, chaotic style. Basically picking Mexico to finish 6th just because Nolan is at the helm, and putting a lot of faith in him after the job improving Panama two years ago.
Guard Omar Quintero is Team Mexico's most dangerous scoring weapon. The cat-quick Quintero is tailor-made for Nolan's style, and is an accomplished shooter who actually led the '03 Tourney of Americas in scoring. Ex-UNLV standout wing Romel Beck is a key cog for Mexico--he's a scorer who can drill the long ball. Anthony Lever-Pedroza (Fat Lever's son) provides Richardson with another athletic wing with nice outside shooting skills.
Former Phoenix Sun Horacio Llamas is a space-eater, but I'm not so sure how he will function in Richardson's up-tempo style. Victor Avila, who played alongside compatriot Eddie Najera (who's not playing in Vegas) at Oklahoma, offers another talented big body that Mexico can turn to for boards & interior points.
Will see if the Mexican players take to Nolan's style, especially interested to see how they execute the trapping/scrambling/pressing on the defensive end. They have looked good in the exhibition stage, but then again they've been paired vs. dubious competition.7) URUGUAY:
Key players: E. Batista; N. Mazzarino; M. Osimani; M. Aquiar
Uruguay could be the sleeper of the tourney, and they cemented this status by finishing 3rd in the Pan Am games last month. What makes this team particularly dangerous is their collective ability to shoot, which gives them a distinct advantage over poor-shooting clubs like Venezuela & Panama. They also do a nice job at the free throw line.
Team Uruguay is led by Atlanta Hawks' Esteban Batista, who is a big physical presence that led '05 Americas in rebounding. Italian League standout Nicolas Mazzarino is Uruguay's other main weapon, who brings a veteran presence with a sweet shooting stroke & solid passing skills at the guard spot. Mazzarino will be joined in the backcourt by Martin Osimani (ex-Duquesne), a big PG who's a nice floor general that has improved his shooting. Leandro Garcia-Morales (ex-Tex A&M) is another combo guard that Uruguay can count on to provide solid shooting & some ball-handling. 6-6 SF Mauricio Aquiar gives Uruguay more offensive firepower on the perimeter.
I have to say, I will not be surprised if this squad steals a Top 5 spot, and think their efficient shooting could cause some major issues for opposing teams. 8) VENEZUELA:
Key players: H. Romero; G. Vasquez; C. Cedeno
Venezuela was dealt a last-minute blow with the exclusion of arguably their best player, Oscar Torres, due to a knee injury. So now Venezuela's main option is powerful combo forward Hector Romero, who was the '03 Sun Belt Player of Year while at New Orleans. Romero will have to carry most of the scoring burden with Torres out, and will be called upon to carry the brunt of the rebounding load. This team is going to need some sort of input from promising big, Miguel Marriaga, who is a capable rebounder & shot-blocker.
Potential 1st-round draft prospect Greivis Vasquez provides Venezuela with a PG with great size & great energy on both sides of the ball. Vasquez had a fine freshman year at Maryland, where he surprised with his floor game & scrappy defense. Vasquez will be paired with another promising big PG, Carlos Cedeno, who has good PG instincts but is not much of a shooter like Vasquez.
Not sure why they didn't invite Richard Lugo to Vegas this year. I understand he's a little older, and they wanted to go in a younger direction, but Lugo was Venezuela's best player last summer at the Worlds, averaging a double-double, and provided much-needed interior help.
This team is not known for its shooting, and struggles both behind the 3pt. line & on the foul line. Marquette's David Cubillan seems to be their only viable deep threat (shot 42% from 3pt. in NCAA), but not sure if he will see a ton of burn. Venezuela did not look good at the recent Stankovic Cup, and has their work cut out for them if they desire a Top 5 finish. This team could be in danger of not even making the 2nd round, and their tilt vs. Virgin Islands will likely determine who moves on to the 2nd round. 9) PANAMA:
Key players: JR Pinnock; J. Lloreda; J. Levy; D. Gomez
After Nolan Richardson guided this team to a nice run in '05, Panama followed it up last summer by underachieving badly at the Worlds without the services of Richardson . They had some established ex-NCAA talent like Ed Cota, Ruben Douglas, Jaime Lloreda & Ruben Garces, and were positioned in the weakest group, but they never meshed & they finished 23rd out of 24.
Cota, Douglas & Garces are absent from this roster, so most of the heavy lifting will have to be done by Lloreda & JR Pinnock. Pinnock was an All-Atlantic 10 talent at George Washington who was in training camp with the Lakers last year. Pinnock is an explosive athlete, but not much of a deep shooter, while former LSU star Lloreda provides Panama with a strong inside presence. Lloreda averaged a double-double over his career at LSU, and was second in the nation in rebounds his senior year.
Like Venezuela, Panama is hurting in the shooting department with PG Jair Peralta as the one player known for his shooting. Former Wake Forest Demon Deacon Jamaal Levy & ex-Okla Sooner Dionisio Gomez provide Panama with solid rebounding & active defending next to Lloreda. 10) VIRGIN ISLANDS (US):
Key players: C. Krauser; F. Elegar; C. Victor
Can't expect too much from this tiny nation and they had a very poor showing at the Pan Am Games, finishing dead last. Some reports that Raja Bell is heading to Vegas, but the evidence from the info that I have is that he ain't on the squad (he had arthroscopic knee surgery less than a month ago
Former Pitt Panther floor leader Carl Krauser joined the team this year, and should be one of the V. Islands' go-to-guys. Carl ain't much of a shooter, but he's a typical gritty NYC PG who knows how to run a club. 6-9 Frank Elegar is the primary inside presence for this undersized club. The athletic Elegar is currently at Drexel, where he led the team in scoring, rebounding, & FG pct. this year, and is one of the top bigs in the underrated Colonial Conference. Ex-Murray St. stud Cuthbert Victor is a great athlete who is a tremendous rebounder for his size.
This team's outside shooting is shaky, and will have to rely heavily on solid marksmen Kevin Sheppard & Jason Edwin (ex-Kent St) to provide long-range relief. The Virgin Islands do have good athleticism across the board & will look to create a quick pace on both ends of the floor.
Now only if this team could coax V. Island legend Holman Harley out of retirement, they might have a shot at a medal.... An even bigger dream would have been if the V.I. had only gotten its national program in gear a few years earlier -- Timmy D would have suited up for them instead of Team USA (once players play for one country, they can't play for any others).