By Terry Lyons, CBSTampa Special Contributor
While the United States looks like a lock on the gold, there’s always the possibility of an upset if Team USA gets knocked off its game along the way – see my preview for potential pitfalls on the path to the gold.
The likely contenders for medals, in addition to the Americans, will be the same three teams that graced the podiums over the last three or four FIBA world and European competitions: Spain, Argentina, and Lithuania.
And just in case you’re wondering about Turkey (2012 silver), Serbia (2010 4th place) and some of the other traditional powers, such as like Croatia and Italy, those countries did not qualify for London.
Here are thumbnail profiles on the best-of-the-rest of the field:
SPAIN: The front-court size of 7-footers Pau Gasol and his “little” brother, Marc, will be reason for concern for the undersized USA. But the key factor for Spain when it faces the USA in medal-round action will be the play of guards Jose Calderon, Juan Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Sergio Rodriguez. If the backcourt can hold its own and not turn the ball over against the pressure USA defense, Spain will be in the game. Spain has no fear of the USA and will pound the ball into the big men in an attempt to get to the free throw line. Spain won the 2011 European championship, no small accomplishment. If both the USA and Spain win their respective pool play rounds, the likely meeting will not come until the gold medal game.
ARGENTINA: Similar to the last go-round for the core members of the 2006-2012 U.S. national team, the Manu Ginobili-led Argentines know this is the end of the trail. Add that to the potential for the Olympics to be a tournament for 23-and-under “tikes” and it only underlines the fact that Argentina will be competing with heavy hearts and the intangible of sentiment and desire. Ginobili, himself, can become a USA defense-breaker or a turnover machine while Carlos Delfino is a suitable international guard. Up front, Luis Scola and Andreas Nocioni are as tough and experienced of an international tandem you will see. Argentina is dangerous, especially to the team that will see them in the quarterfinals and the semifinals.
FRANCE: Seven current or former NBA players dot the roster of the French national team, the runner-up at the 2011 European championship. While the name Tony Parker, the MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals, flows from the mouths of world basketball fans like fine champagne in a New York City nightclub, the key factor for the French team is the absence of Joakim Noah, the 6-11, New York City-bred, pain-in-the-posterior center of the Chicago Bulls. Because of Noah’s French heritage (nearly every sports fan knows his father, Yannick, was a world class tennis star), and his friendship with many a player on the current French national team, Noah was ready to suit up until a left ankle injury curtailed his 2012 NBA Playoffs – and continues to require extensive rehabilitation work. While the French team can do some damage in London, Noah, the NCAA champion from the University of Florida, would have made a huge difference when it came to play Spain, Lithuania, Brazil or the U.S.
LITHUANIA: Every time you look up, Lithuania is right there. Whether it’s a European championship, a world championship or the Olympic Games, Lithuania comes to play and it come with size, rebounding and shooting. A pair of Toronto Raptors team members – Linas Kleiza and Jonas Valanciunas – will be most familiar to North American fans, along with Darius Songaila of Wake Forest fame and guard Sarunas Jasikevicius, formerly of the University of Maryland. Fans might remember it was Jasikevicius’ potential game-winning three-pointer that fell short, partially due to the tenacious defense of Jason Kidd and a partial block by Antonio McDyess at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. At London, look for Lithuania to be in the mix for a medal.
RUSSIA: When FIBA created the current system for Olympic qualifying, the organization sliced off three tournament berths and created a pan-continental, pre-Olympic tournament and money maker. In doing so, FIBA also created “the hot hand.” In the summer of 2012, Russia is the hot hand, coming off the first-pace finish at the recently completed tournament held in Caracas, Venezuela. Coach David Blatt is one of the top international coaches in the world and he’ll bring Andrei Kirilenko, a signee by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov and NBA newbie Alexey Shved.
BRAZIL: As Team USA experienced in one of its five friendly games leading up to London, Brazil’s formidable frontline of Nene (Washington Wizards), Tiago Splitter (San Antonio Spurs) and Anderson Varejao (Cleveland Cavaliers) – along with quick, sharp-shooting guards such as Marcelinho Huertas and Leandrinho Barbosa – can create havoc unless Brazil’s opponent forces a ton of turnovers. Aside from the USA, no other team features a game-long, relentless full-court attack, so Brazil can advance deep into the medal round as long as the big fellas stay focused, out of foul trouble and relentless on the boards.
The Medal Pretenders
Australia and Great Britain could all leap-up to grab a medal round berth, especially Great Britain with Chicago forward Luol Deng carrying his national team on his shoulders in front of the hometown fans. Australia’s Boomers come to London equipped to grab a fourth place berth in Pool B and from there, a match-up with the Americans, as long as the Americans win-out in their side of the preliminary round.
Happy to be there
China, Nigeria and Tunisia do not figure to be in play for one of the eight medal round berths. Nigeria surprised all in gaining the third slot at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament. China has taken a giant step backwards with the loss (retirement) of Yao Ming while Yi Jianlian cannot fill the huge roll left from Yao’s departure.
Terry Lyons, former NBA Vice President of International Communications, worked the 1984 and ’88 Olympics stateside, then accompanied Team USA’s basketball team from the1992 through the 2008.Olympics. He is the co-founder of MediaForward.tv and serves as Editor in Chief of DigitalSportsDesk.com, On Twitter, follow @DigSportsDesk