Saturday, August 9, 2008

Beijing Preview

Time Magazine came out with a list of 100 Athletes to Watch at the Olympics. At the top of the list is a certain U.S. men's basketball star.

Also on the list...Lopez Lomong, Liu Xiang, Marta and more.

And, as a big hoops fan, here is my prognostication for the men's basketball tournament:

12th place: Iran - They won't win a single game in this tournament. In fact, they lost two summer league NBA games (many of the players in those games are minor leaguers who won't be on an NBA roster when the season begins) at the Rocky Mountain Review by a combined 42 points, but Iran's victory comes just in competing at the Games.

11th place: Angola - The perennial African champion has made great strides since the days of being elbowed by Charles Barkley in 1992, but they still have a way to go before they reach the level of the elite teams.

10th place: China - The host nation is big on size, led by their 7'6" flag-bearer, Yao Ming, but a medal is out of the question.

9th place: Australia - The Boomers gave Argentina and USA a run for their money in pre-Olympic play, but just to reach the quarterfinals, they'll need to finish pool play ahead of either Argentina, Russia, Lithuania or Croatia.

8th place: Germany - They're led by superstar Dirk Nowitzki - with help from American-turned-German Chris Kaman - but this squad is a bit short on depth. Still, they were able to qualify for the Beijing Games and are strong candidates to reach the quarterfinals.

7th place: Croatia - This country has produced high-level basketball talent and should perform well enough to make the Croatian faithful proud.
6th place: Lithuania - After three consecutive Olympic bronze medals, they hoped to have taken another step toward gold when they beat the U.S. in 2004. They returned to play the U.S. again that year in the bronze medal match, but went home empty-handed. A medal will not come easily in China either.

5th place: Russia - They won last year's European Championships when they pulled off a major upset in rallying to beat Spain. The Russians were relatively competitive against the Americans in a pre-Olympic exhibition.

4th place: Greece - Winners of the silver medal at the 2006 World Championships, it seems unfathomable that a team this good won't win a medal. However, in a field of competition this talented, there are no guarantees. The top four teams may all have aspirations of gold, but at least one of them won't even medal.

Bronze Medal: Argentina - The gold medal winners of the 2004 Athens Games have their work cut out for them. They struggled a bit in the friendlies prior to the Olympics - losing to Spain twice and Lithuania once, and getting a better-than-expected game from some other opponents - so picking them ahead of Greece may show bias on my part. However, the Argentines have generally put their best foot forward when the games count most, and they could advance to the semifinals (or better) for the fourth straight time in major world competition. Miracles can happen when you have this man on your team.

Silver Medal: Spain - The defending World Champions are loaded with talent and should have a chip on their shoulder. Not only would they love to avenge their loss to Russia in the last EuroBasket, but they also were shafted in the last Olympic games. After going unbeaten in pool play in Athens, Spain ran into Team USA in the quarterfinals - on a day the Americans' outside shots were finally falling at a high rate. That left Spain to settle for seventh place, despite a 6-1 record. Spain actually beat the silver and gold medalists of that tournament (Argentina and Italy), but went home with nothing.

Gold Medal: USA - By no means is this a sure thing, and after dominating Olympic basketball for generations, the U.S. may never be a clear-cut favorite again. With that being said, they still have a good chance at the gold - it just won't be easy. Their players are trained for a different brand of basketball than what FIBA plays, and other countries' headlining players are more familiar with international basketball - and with their teammates (see this Kelly Dwyer column for more on the challenges the American team faces). However, if they dictate the tempo of their games, the Americans should stand at the top of the medals podium.

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