Monday, July 09, 2012

Russia, Lithuania & Nigeria Qualify for London

The Olympic basketball field of 12 is now officially set with Russia, Lithuania and Nigeria grabbing the top three spots at the FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tourney in Venezuela.

The field of 12 will be split into two opening round groups of six. Lithuania and Nigeria join Argentina, France, Tunisia and USA in Group A, while Group B has Australia, Brazil, China, Great Britain, Spain and now, Russia. Fairly good balance between the groups.

Here's our analysis of the key teams from the just-completed qualifying tourney:

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NIGERIA-DOMINICAN REPUBLIC:

No surprise that the two prohibitive favorites in the Pre-Olympic field, Russia and Lithuania, found their way to London. But upstart Nigeria ruined the predicted European sweep by upsetting Greece and then knocking off Americas contender Dominican Republic, 88-73, in the 3rd-Place game on Sunday.

It looked like Nigeria's Olympic chances were over after the first day, when they lost by two to Venezuela. But they took advantage of an unfocused Lithuania team (which only had to avoid losing by more than 10 points) and snuck into the quarters thanks to point differential. There they stunned Greece, 80-79, which at least assured two shots at getting to London.

Nigeria were forced into the 3rd-Place game after a 85-77 loss to Russia. Then in Sunday's game vs. Dom. Republic, Nigeria took advantage of a flurry of TOs in the first quarter to take the lead, which lasted for much of the game.

Nigeria's superior depth (especially on the frontline) was a factor vs. the Dominicans. It helped a ton that Nigeria has eight guys 6-8-6-9 (who are athletic rebounders) that they could shuffle in & out of the lineup.

We noted in our preview that this might have been the most talented Nigerian team ever assembled, at least on paper. But the issue was that they had very little experience playing together as a whole unit. Nine new members were added to the team this summer with only Derrick Obasohan, Olumide Oyedeji and Ejike Ugoboaja returning from last year.

The additions of Ike Diogu and Al-Farouq Aminu to this summer's roster were key to Nigeria's fortunes in Caracas, especially vs. Dom. Republic.

Ike Diogu (25 pts on 71% FG, 10 rbs) was terrific scoring the ball inside all game long, but really hurt the Dominicans in crucial spots by burying long jumpers (3-of-4 3PA). Diogu knocked down many long looks all week and averaged 16.6 ppg & 10.8 rpg over the week

Al-Farouq Aminu was vital defensively (five blocks) and aided Diogu with 14 pts, seven rebs & four assts.

We knew Nigeria would be athletic and an elite rebounding club, but were not sure how they would function in the half-court offensively. They weren't great during the tourney, but they were nowhere near as ragged as expected.

Coach Calipari maybe wishes he'd kept Charlie Villanueva on the roster as Al Horford and JM Martinez looked gassed in this game. Five games in seven days will do that to you when there are no serviceable back-ups.

Jack Martinez (16 pts, 9 rbs) was in his usual FIBA beast mode early for Dom. Republic but did most of his damage in the first half. Thought they might have gone to Martinez a little too much and possibly wore him down in the 1st half.

Al Horford (12 pts) was saddled with foul trouble and never found any rhythm. Would have liked to seen more touches for Al when he was on the floor.

They also failed to get the ball to Francisco Garcia (17 pts, 5-for-11 3PA) for extended stretches in the middle of the game after he buried a couple early jumpers.

Dominicans once again got spotty play from their ball-handlers. This has been a recurring problem for many years.

Juan Coronado and Elpidio Fortuna can make some plays because of their speed, but it's outweighed by their terrible decision-making. Fortuna had a couple steals and Coronado hit a couple jumpers on Sunday but we understand why these guys have never gotten consistent minutes in the past.

Not having Edgar Sosa healthy didn't help, but he's no great shakes himself. Maybe Calipari and the D.R. federation should think about naturalizing a point guard in the future to help solve this problem.

This is Nigeria's first Olympic appearance and they won't have an easy time advancing to knockout stage with Argentina, France, Lithuania and USA in Group A.

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RUSSIA: Russia came into the tourney as the best team and they went 4-0 and were never seriously challenged throughout the week.

And they did this without some key rotation guys. Andrey Vorontsevich and Sergey Bykov were absent while Timo Mozgov only played a total of 24 minutes all week because of an ankle injury. Mozgov should be fine for London, but not sure if Vorontsevich and Bykov will be added to the Olympic roster.

Their trio of versatile 6-9 forwards, Andrei Kirilenko, Viktor Khryapa & Sergey Monya, were potent once again. Kirilenko (16.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.25 spg) was the best all-around player in the tourney while Khryapa (8.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.0 spg) once again did his poor man's impersonation of Kirilenko. Monya drilled jumpers and all three played nice defense.

Their offensive execution was pretty solid, minus some small stretches of dicey shot selection. Their usual disciplined spacing and crisp passing was on display.

Their offense is built to get mileage off of cuts and off-ball screens. Not a ton of attacking off the dribble (besides Alexei Shved) or many post-ups. And 84% of their field goals were assisted, which is killer.

Sharpshooter Vitali Fridzon (14.5 ppg on 68%) did a lot of damage coming off screens and made 11 of his 14 3PA. Sasha Kahn (12.5 ppg on 75% shooting) gave them good minutes by running the floor well and finishing on rolls.

Alexey Shved (10.5 ppg, 5.0 apg) made some terrific passes off of pick/roll and kept his TOs low, but he forced up too many questionable shots (especially haphazard runners) which led to 34% shooting.

Defensively, Russia was up to its old tricks. No surprise Coach Blatt mixed up his alignments adroitly and caused confusion for opposing offenses. They swarmed to the ball down low, denied on the perimeter (especially Khyrapa) and challenged nearly everything. Though only a four-game sample size vs. some lackluster offenses, the defensive numbers were stellar--35% Def. FG pct., 27% Def. 3pt. pct.

Russia should challenge Brazil for second place in Group B and definitely have a chance of competing for bronze.

LITHUANIA: Lithuania didn't exactly cruise through this tourney like Russia did, though they probably played a few more tougher teams. Nearly lost to Puerto Rico in the quarters and lost to Nigeria in the first round (though, not sure what to make of that game as Lithuania just needed to keep the game close).

Whatever the case, Lithuania showed they're still one of the most potent offensive units in FIBA play. They were awesome offensively last summer and they looked to be even better at the Olympics this year with Linas Kleiza back in the mix.

Lithuania got Kleiza back into the groove with post-up/iso action that worked well in 2010. Kleiza led Lithuania with 19.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 50% shooting (50% on 3PA). Linas was good for double figures every game.

Jonas Maciulis (11.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg) returned to the team after being injured last year and he was nice on both ends of the floor like he was at the 2010 Worlds.

The PGs were solid running the exacting Lithuania offense. Jonas Valanciunas (8.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 70% FG pct. in 16 mpg) was highly productive when he could manage to stay on the floor. Still has issues with overaggressive play and was in foul trouble every game--fouled out in six minutes vs. Puerto Rico.

The two-headed PG combo of Saras Jasikevicius and Mantas Kalnietis orchestrated the exacting Lithuanian offense fairly well. They combined for 20.6 ppg, 11.5 apg and 55% shooting. Martynas Pocius kept his strong play from last summer going this week by burying jumpers and flying around the court.

Very closely-matched with Argentina and France in Group A, and like Russia, are a legit contender for bronze.

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