Olympic Preview: Part 1

Fri, 08/08/2008 - 9:42am

Team Previews and Odds to Win Gold


Beijing's National Stadium

The 2008 Olympic Men's Basketball Tournament starts on Saturday night with Iran and Russia kicking off the schedule. Every year, the quality of basketball around the world improves and 2008 is no different. This year's tournament in Beijing features a handful of teams that are capable of winning gold.

Group A features the reigning Olympic champions, Argentina , as well as the 2007 Eurobasket Champions, Russia . Perennial European power, Lithuania is also in the group, as are the rapidly rising basketball nations of Australia and Croatia . Group A may lack top teams, but it is a solid group that has quality from top to bottom.

Group B, the tougher of the two groups, has arguably the top three teams. The United States is considered the odds on favorite to win gold, but they will have to deal with a highly talented Spain squad that includes four current NBA players, and a Greek squad that defeated the Americans in 2006. And let us not forget about the hosts of the 2008 Olympic Games, China . The hearts of a nation, and the eyes of the entire world will focus on Beijing . And for the next three weeks, so will the gaze of basketball fans from around the world.

We start with Group A.

Group A:

Population: 40,301,927
Qualified: 2007 FIBA Americas Tournament (2nd)

Roster: Carlos Delfino, Manu Ginobili, Román González, Juan Gutiérrez, Leonardo Gutiérrez, Federico Kammerichs, Andrés Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Antonio Porta, Pablo Prigioni, Paolo Quinteros, and Luis Scola.

The defending champions are under the radar this year in Beijing . Several questions linger for the Argentinians, Manu Ginobili's health most paramount.. Ginobili jammed his ankle during last year's NBA Playoffs, and his game suffered as he struggled to overcome the injury. Ginobili has had two months to recover, and though Manu has recently said the ankle feels fine, it remains to be seen if he can be his old self. Argentina will also be without some key players that have contributed to Argentina 's international successes in years past. The Argentinian backcourt will be without its veteran leader, Pepe Sanchez, who retired from international basketball. Forward Walter Hermann will also not be participating, as he withdrew from the squad earlier on in the year. Still, Argentina has a good team that features a hard-nosed frontline of Scola, Oberto and Nocioni. Delfino is another solid player who can contribute with his scoring ability. Argentina is behind the Americans, Spainiards and Greeks, but it would be unwise for any team to overlook the reigning gold-medalists. This is a team that has experience and talent, and is still capable of winning the championship.

Odds to win: 10-1

Population: 3,575,439
Qualified: 2007 Eurobasket Championships (3rd)

Roster: Linas Kleiza, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Simas Jasaitis, Robertas Javtokas, Rimantas Kauke.nas, Darjuš Lavrinovic, Kšyštof Lavrinovic, Mindaugas Lukauskis, Jonas Maciulis, Marius Prekevicius, Ramunas Siskauskas

Lithuania is the best three-point shooting team in Beijing , and they have the ability to shoot their way into a medal game. Siskauskas has been setting Europe alight recently, winning the Russian championship in 2008, while nabbing league MVP in the process. He will need to continue to play at an all-world level if Lithuania is to medal. In addition to Kaukenas, Jasikevicius and Siskauskas can both play with anybody in the world. Their ability drain from three will be an important force in driving the team forward. Denver Nuggets 6th man, Linas Kleiza, had a breakout season last year in the NBA, and will be called on to rebound, defend and make perimeter shots. Of great concern to the Lithuanians and their fans should be the recent poor play of Sarunas Jasikevicius. The former Maccabi Tel-Aviv standout's ability has repordetly diminished greatly this year. If he reverts to his pre-NBA days of yore, Lithuania is capable of an upset or two en route to medaling

Odds to win: 20-1

Population: 141,377,752
Qualified: 2007 Eurobasket Champions

Roster: Sergei Bykov, VitalyFridzon, J.R. Holden, Victor Keyru, Viktor Khryapa, Andrei Kirilenko, Sergey Monya, Nikita Morgunov, ZakharPashutin, PetrSamoylenko, Aleksey Savrasenko, AndreyVorontsevich.

The Russians surprised many by winning the 2007 Eurobasket Tournament. Led by tournament MVP, Andrei Kirilenko , Russia stormed past European powers Greece and Spain en route to the title. AK-47 looked like the guy who at one point was considered a rising NBA superstar, playing magnificently in all aspects. Yet, Kirilenko's Eurobasket success did not translate into success in the NBA, and he had another mediocre season for the Jazz. It's apparent to me that Kirilenko can still ball, but one wonders which AK-47 will show up. Russians hope it latter. Kirilenko and the rest of the Russian squad got good news when they heard Viktor Khryapa is reportedly healthy and ready to play. Suiting up for the Russians for the first time will be NCAA champion and Jayhawk alumni, Sasha Kaun. His length and athleticism is a solid addition to Russia 's frontcourt. J.R. Holden, an American ex-pat who has Russian citizenship and plays his ball in Russia , is the first American-born athlete to compete for Russia . In addition to Kirilenko's performance, Holden's play at point will go a long way in determining Russia 's final position in Beijing .

Odds to win: 30-1

Population: 4,493,312
Qualifled: 2008 World Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Croatia is an interesting team. For a country that has had its share of good players, Croatia has not medaled in Olympic competition since capturing silver in 1992. Considered a darkhorse by some, Croatia will be trying to push their country back to international prominence. Plananic and Ukic are two good point guards than can score and control tempo. Kus is a veteran guard who can hit from the outside. The frontcourt is a little soft. Banic is a hard-nosed player, other than him the frontcourt is not as physical. Markota has drawn comparisons to Vlad Radmonavic, so the guy can obviously shoot at the forward position. Croatia strikes me as a team with a very good backcourt, and a questionable frontcourt. If Croatia can beat Iran and Australia , they will be primed to advance to the quarterfinals.

Roster: Marko Banic', Stanko Barac', Davor Kus, Krešimir Lonc(ar, Sandro Nicevic', ZoranPlaninic', Marko Popovic', Nikola Prkac(in, Marin Rozic', Damjan Rudež, Marko Tomas, and Roko Ukic'.

Odds to win: 150-1

Population: 20,434,176
Qualified: 2007 Oceania Championships (Gold)

Roster: David Andersen, Chris Anstey, David Barlow, Andrew Bogut, CJ Bruton, Joe Ingles, Patrick Mills, Brad Newley, Matt Nielsen (C), Shawn Redhage, Glen Saville, Mark Worthington.

Australia has placed fourth in three of the last five Olympics, yet continues to get overlooked as a whole. The Aussies boast a big, tall frontcourt that can stand toe-to-toe with anyone. The Milwaukee Bucks' Andrew Bogut is coming off a career year, and gives the Australians a good primary option in the middle. In addition to Bogut, the Boomers have three players over 6-10 in Nielson, Anderson and Anstey. Their physicality could pose big problems for opponents. 6-8 Joe Ingles is a 20 year-old sweet shooting left hander, who has NBA potential, and could get some minutes. However, if the Boomers are to advance to the quarterfinals, their backcourt will need to be consistent. Bruton, Newley and newcomer Patty Mills will look to keep Australia in gear. Keep an eye on the young speedster, Mills. The St. Mary's point-guard tore up the West Coast Conference last year, and had a good showing against the US national team in an exhibition game. Though this is not a team that can win gold, Australia could advance to the medal round, and give any of the title contenders a good game.

Odds to win: 250-1

Population: 65,397,521
Qualified: 2007 Asian Championships (Gold)

Roster: Amir Amini, Ali Doraghi, Javad Davari, Mehdi Kamrani, Saeid Davarpanah, Iman Zandi, Hamed Afagh, Hamed Sohrabnejad, Oshin Sahakian, Hamed Hadadi, Samad Bahrami

Iran has already had to overcome a lot to get to this point. What should have been a time of celebration for Iran and its players quickly turned into a time of mourning and sadness. Months after winning the 2007 Asian Championships, Aidin Nikkhah-Bahrami, brother to teammate Samad Bahrami, died tragically in a car accident. To honor his fallen brother, Samad has spent most of the past eight months in the gym, working to improve his game. At 6'7, Samad is the team's scoring and emotional leader, and is a guy I will most certainly be rooting for. Hamed Ehadadi , Iran 's 7-2 center, is questionable for the tournament with an ankle injury. If Ehadadi cannot suit up, Iran will miss the presence of their one of their most important inside presence. Iran is a huge underdog and will be lucky to win one game, but that is not stopping the Iranians from competing. Ehadadi has said that though the players do not expect to win any medals, the experience will be positive in building stronger Iranian teams for the future.

Odds to win: 1000-1

Group B:

Population: 12,263,596
Qualified: 2007 African Championship (1st)

Carlos Almeida, FelizardoAmbrosio, Milton Barros, Abdel Aziz Boukar, OlimpioCipriano, Armando Costa, Luis Costa, Vladimir Geronimo, Joaquim Gomes, Paulo Leonel, Eduardo Mingas, Carlos Morais.

When asked if he knew where Angola was at a press conference during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona , Charles Barkley replied, "I don't know, but I do know they're in trouble." We at are not as ignorant ( Angola is located in southwest Africa), nor as funny as Sir Charles, but the fact still remains the same for Angola : They are simply overmatched. Angola plays to their athleticism by employing a small ball lineup in where no player over 6'8 steps on the court. Morais and Cipriano handle the scoring, and Gomes provides a solid third scoring option, but Angola 's lack of size, depth and outside shooting are all unconquerable weaknesses. Angola has never placed higher than 10th in any Olympic or World Championship competition. As a member of the loaded Group B, I expect that trend to continue in Beijing .

Odds to win: 500-1

Population: 82,400,996
Qualified: 2008 World Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Roster: Patrick Femerling, Robert Garrett, Demond Greene, Steffen Hammann, Jan Jagla, Chris Kaman, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Ohlbrecht, Pascal Roller, Sven Schultze, KonradWysocki, Philip Zwiener

Germany enters the Beijing Olympics as a team looking to advance to the quarterfinals, and perhaps further as a potential spoiler. 2006-2007 NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki plays in his first ever Olympic games, and the weight of his nation rests squarely on his shoulders. But, unlike past international tournaments, Dirk has some help. The Los Angeles Clippers' center, Chris Kaman, was recently granted German citizenship and is a great addition to the Deutchland's frontline. His toughness, rebounding, low-post scoring and defense will take a lot off Dirk. The German frontline will be without international veteran and former North Carolina graduate, AdemolaOlulaja, who has reportedly been diagnosed with a tumor on his spine. Expect Femerling to get a boost in minutes in his absence. Roller, Garrett, Greene and Hamman provide a serviceable, yet undersized backcourt that is expected to consistently nail perimeter shots. Though Kaman will give a big boost to Team Germany , this is still a team that relies heavily on Nowitzki. Germany goes as far as Dirk can carry them.

Odds to win: 100-1

Population: 10,706,290
Qualified: 2008 World Olympic Qualifying Tournament

Roster: Yiannis Bourousis, Dimitris Diamantidis, Antonis Fotsis, Andreas Glyniadakis, Theodoros Papaloukas, Michalis Pelekanos, Giorgos Printezis, Sofoklis Schortsanitis, Vasileios Spanoulis, Kostas Tsartsaris, Panagiotis Vasilopoulos, Nikos Zisis

Behind the United States and Spain as favorites in Group B is Greece . The Hellas have no current NBA players on their roster, but have great experience in international tournaments. Greece wins games with its teamwork, awesome defense, and methodical, precise offense. Greece 's guards lead are amongst the tournament's strongest. The highly skilled, highly intelligent Papolaoukas runs the show at point guard for the Greeks. His large 6-7 frame gives him the ability to cause matchup problems all over the floor. Diamantidis plays off guard and spreads the floor nicely with his superb shooting ability. Spanoulis is not known for his shooting, but is a good defender and a smart, crafty player. Though not flashy, Greece 's frontline features an effective three-pronged attack of Schortsanitis, Bourousis, and Fotsis. Greece is a heady, gutty team that has won on the world's highest levels against the world's best teams, and is a team to watch out for in this year's games.

Odds to win: 15-1


Yao Ming

Population: 1,321,851,888
Qualified: Host Nation

Roster: Yao Ming, Liu Wei, Yi Jianlian, Chen Jianghua, WeipengZheng, Chen Jianghu, Sun Yue, Wang Zhizhi

As the host nation, China has immense pressure to advance deep into the tournament. The pride of China , Yao Ming, returns from his ankle injury to lead his country into battle. But, how dominant will the big man be? After several months sitting on the sidelines, it remains to be seen exactly how much rust remains on Yao 's game. The Chinese are heavily dependent on Yao , but one wonders just how much Yao will be able to dominate. China flanks Yao with former NBA player, Wang Zhizhi and current New Jersey Nets forward, Yi Jianlian. Wang is a solid presence on the block who rebounds, and extends defenses with his three-point range. After an underwhelming rookie campaign in the NBA, Yi will need to step his game up to take offensive pressure off Yao . While China 's frontline of Yi, Yao and Wang is very solid, China 's spotty guard play remains as its achilles heel. Liu Wei has ten years of international experience and provides China with steady point guard play, but his backup, Chen Jianghua is inconsistent and sporadic. With Greece, Spain and the United States all expected to advance from Group B, the Chinese will need to take care of business against Angola and Germany if they are to progress. With the full support of a basketball-crazed nation behind them, and raucous homecourt advantage to spur them on, look for China to secure fourth place in Group B and advance into the medal round.

Odds to win: 50-1

Population: 40,448,191
Qualified: 2006 World Championships (Gold)

Roster: José Calderón, Rudy Fernández, Jorge Garbajosa, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Carlos Jiménez, RaúlLópez, ÁlexMumbrú, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes, BerniRodríguez, Ricky Rubio

The Spainards are looking to add to their increasingly cluttered trophy case by capturing gold at this year's Olympics. As the 2006 World Champions and the 2007 Eurobasket runner-ups, Spain has proven that it is the number one team to contend with in Europe . Spain 's combination of experience, talent and passion give them a real chance to triumphantly walk away with the gold from Beijing . The Spainards return 10 of the 12 players that won the 2006 World Championships. Four players on Spain 's roster currently play NBA ball (Calderon, M. Gasol, P. Gasol, Fernandez), and two have previous NBA experience (Navarro, Garbajosa). 17 year-old phenom, Ricky Rubio, is widely considered as a lottery pick whenever he decides to enter the NBA Draft. Spain 's main strength is its backcourt. Calderon is a complete point-guard who can score and distribute in a variety of ways. Navarro is a proven assassin from the perimeter that makes defenses pay for slow rotations and poor closeouts. When Calderon and Navarro come out, Spain will not miss a beat -- Lopez and Rubio are two excellent backups, and will both get minutes. Spain 's frontline is also extremely formidable. Pau Gasol is one of the tournament's most fiery competitors, as well as one of the best centers. His brother Marc will be playing for Memphis next year, and is a budding big man with a solid set of skills. Jiminez gives more depth up front, and Fernandez is another versatile player who can contribute in a variety of ways. Other than the US , Spain is this year's most talented and balanced squad, and will provide a stout challenge to the American's drive to gold.

Odds to win: 4-1

Population: 301,139,947
Qualified: 2007 FIBA Americas (Gold)

Roster: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Tayshaun Prince, Michael Redd, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams

Having been dubbed "The Redeem Team", the Americans boast what is widely considered their best team since the 1996 team that brought home gold in Atlanta . With a team featuring Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, its easy to understand why that is the case. Starting point guard, Jason Kidd, has never lost a game as a member of Team USA , and his ability to manage the game, control tempo and defend bigger guards is extremely important. Spelling Kidd will be Williams and Paul, who have been playing alongside each other in recent exhibition games. The two of them will also be expected to play at a high, but under control tempo. The reigning NBA MVP, Kobe Bryant, has defined his role on the squad as the defensive stopper, even dubbing himself as "The Doberman." Look for him to hound bigger guards and scoring wingmen. But, like other American teams that have failed to win gold in recent competitons, the US potentially lacks in outside shooting and inside toughness. Other than Redd, Team USA has no pure shooters and the team has the potential to sputter from three. Also, America 's frontcourt is quite thin and arguably flawed. Bosh strays from physical play, Boozer is undersized and Howard is largely untested and may be prone to foul trouble a la Tim Duncan in 2004. Those problems aside, the Americans are the most athletic, versatile and talented team in the tournament. The key for the United States will be their defense. The United States plays an aggressive, ball-hawking brand of defense that is designed to force turnovers. Against weaker teams, this type of gambling defense works wonders. But, against more disciplined teams, this philosophy may be undone, as was the case in 2006 when the Greeks were able to shred the American's defense with crisp ball movement and sound pick and roll execution. Before the tournament, LeBron James guaranteed a gold medal for the US . The pressure is on to win gold. These players have committed themselves to re-establishing the United States as the best basketball nation in the world. The talent is there, as is the drive. There are no more excuses for this team. It's gold or nothing.

Odds to win: 1/5

*Look for Part 2 on Saturday: A focus on the top draft prospects participating in the Summer Games.

*Jon Pastuszek will be blogging from Beijing on basketball and the excitment surrounding the Olympics for the next few weeks. Check back for updates.