Olympic Men’s Basketball: Medal Round Preview

Photo courtesy of zimbio.com. Will LeBron James (pictured above) lead Team USA to gold? Our very own Nick Craddock weighs in.

By Nick Craddock

The preliminary round of the London 2012 edition of the men’s basketball competition concluded Monday and we’ve learned (or merely confirmed) that the United States, which is escaping the group stage unscathed, is still the team to beat for the gold medal.

After the United States, the question of which team poses the biggest threat to the heavy favorites remains unclear. While the aforementioned question does not yield a definitive answer, what is clear heading into the medal round, which begins Wednesday, is that a handful of teams from the chasing pack can challenge LeBron James and Co. on a great day for American opponents or a bad day for the Americans when it comes to their own execution.

In a single-elimination format, anything could happen for these teams still vying for Olympic success:

Brazil

The game against regional rival Argentina in the quarterfinals should be an intense matchup, regardless of the result. However, if Brazil advances to play the United States (assuming Australia does not shock the world), Brazil does boast good size in Nene Hilario (who has been hobbled by injury recently), Anderson Varejao, and Tiago Splitter, all 6-foot-11 NBA big men. Of course, one of the few weaknesses the U.S. team possesses is its smaller stature, so this could pose the most notable matchup problem should the Americans face this team they beat by a mere five points in a pre-Olympics exhibition.

Player to Watch: Leandro Barbosa has been filling the basket up and leads this team in scoring with 15 points per game. Hot shooting can spell an upset, so teams not wanting to make an early entrance best keep an eye on Barbosa spotting up in the corner.

Argentina

If Argentina is going to mimic a golden, Athenian-type run circa 2004, then the Argentineans will need to play with more consistency against the top competition. Argentina blasted the likes of Lithuania, Nigeria, and Tunisia by double digits in the preliminary round, but flubbed in games against the top two seeds from its group, France and the United States. Argentine fans should be encouraged, however, that their team was within striking distance of both the French and Americans for a time before hitting a wall in both games.

Player to Watch: Manu Ginobili. Does this guy ever lose a step? Much in the same way that the San Antonio Spurs continue to be labeled as old, this Argentine team is allegedly a shell of the 2004 gold medal-winning team. Somehow, someway, the Spurs have remained relevant with the same core of players from yesteryear, so with Ginobili still at the core of Argentina’s team, don’t count this team out just yet.

United States

The Americans’ final group game against Argentina summed up the first-round experience for the gold medal favorites at these Olympics: Moments of brilliance coupled with lackadaisical play that makes you think an upset is possible, even if only remotely. After playing a close first half with Argentina, the Americans pulled away for an easy win out of the intermission. It’s nice to see that a halftime break was all that was needed in lighting the team’s fuse, but playing to expectations from the tip is a sure way to avoid an upset.

Player to Watch: LeBron James. King James has apparently taken over the leadership role on this team and with so much talent abound, James’ leadership qualities will set him apart from his teammates and possibly be the difference in a potential adversity-filled game for the Americans (i.e., the five-point win over Lithuania when James delivered the final blow en route to the win).

Australia

The Aussies did well to survive Group B and advanced in the top four, ahead of underdogs China and Great Britain. Nevertheless, Australia’s visit to the medal round will likely be a short stay after drawing the unfortunate task of squaring off against the United States, which simply has too much firepower for Australia.

Player to Watch: Patty Mills. The St. Mary’s product has been a revelation at the Olympics, averaging more than 20 points per game and draining a tournament-high 39 points against host Great Britain. If Australia has any chance at an upset, Mills will have to go berserk on the score sheet.

France

Cruising to a 4-1 record when your team plays in the same group as the United States is about as good as record as possible given the circumstances. France, with eight NBA players (past or present) on its roster, is a talented team and will likely be extra motivated heading into the quarterfinals amid reports that the Spanish lost on purpose to avoid facing the Americans, opting instead for the “easier” route to the finals.

Player to Watch: Nicolas Batum. After matching the four-year, $46 million offer sheet the Minnesota Timberwolves offered the young Frenchmen, the Portland Trail Blazers are probably hoping that Batum continues to outscore countrymen Tony Parker at the same clip when he returns stateside. Sadly for Portland, that might not happen next season, but it seems Batum will take the mantle from Parker as the leader of the next generation of French hoops.

Spain

As it so happens, the No.2 team in the world was benefited by an underwhelming group stage and third-place finish in its group because it avoids meeting the United States in its half of the knockout bracket. That being said, assuming the Spanish can return to form and stay on course for a gold medal rematch with the Americans seems presumptuous, particularly given the tough quarterfinal matchup with France.

Player to Watch: Jose Calderon. The Toronto Raptors point guard is a poor man’s Ricky Rubio and for Spain to excel, the diminutive point guard needs to do a better job of making sure the Spanish roster’s weapons (The Gasol brothers, Serge Ibaka, Victor Claver, et al.) are utilized in the most effective manner.

Russia

The Russians almost matched the Americans as the only team to go undefeated in the preliminary round if not for a Patty Mills game-winning 3-pointer in the final group game against Australia. In spite of that loss, the Russians looked quite impressive, especially in beating medal contenders Brazil and Spain. Whether the recent loss is a harbinger of forthcoming poor results or merely a byproduct of playing in an essentially meaningless game will be seen soon enough. If it’s the latter, this team may have a deep run in the cards.

Player to Watch: Andrei Kirilenko. AK-47 spent the year overseas with CSKA Moscow and NBA fans are now getting a good look at what they’ve missed while Kirilenko has been plying his trade in the homeland. Said Kirilenko after a 35-point, 14-of-17 shooting performance earlier in these Olympics: “I feel like a young deer.” That ought to intimidate an opposing player or two. Fear the deer!

Lithuania

Another conundrum of a team, Lithuania, a quadrennial medal contender at the Olympics, played America to its closest game in the group stage, but also failed to win any games against teams advancing with them to the knockout stage. A quarterfinal exit would likely be considered a failure for the three-time bronze medalists.

Player to Watch: Jonas Valanciunas. Limited to 53 minutes of play in this tournament thus far, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft has not made much of an impact after playing a key role for Lithuanian junior teams in the past. A player with supposed first-round talent and poised to make the jump to the NBA this season needs to be more assertive.

***Predictions***

Quarterfinals

Brazil

Argentina

United States

Australia

France

Spain

Russia

Lithuania

Semifinals

Argentina

United States

Spain

Russia

Bronze Medal

Argentina

Spain

Gold Medal

United States

Russia

Stay tuned for the next edition of TheSportsKraze.

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