Spain looms as the clear favorite in Group D of the 2010 FIBA World Championship, which begins Saturday in Turkey, but teams such as Lithuania and France could jump into the mix at any time.
Here is a detailed analysis of the teams that will compete at Izmir, Turkey.
Coach: Leo Rautins
Key players: Andy Rautins, Joel Anthony
Analysis: For those who keep thinking that Steve Nash (long gone from the Canadian roster) or
Samuel Dalembert (another star not present in Turkey) could serve as the savior of this North American team, it is time to flip that page once and for all.
With the exception of Joel Anthony, center for the Miami Heat, and Andy Rautins, recently drafted by the New York Knicks with the 38th overall pick, Leo Rautins' roster lacks big names. We can consider Carl English and Olu Famutimi as two talented players, but we don't see much more than that.
Without a strong local league in their country, the Canadian players get together only for international competitions, but in spite of that, they have been able to put together a dangerous, fast squad with a good defense, centered on the individual efforts of players who create an interesting group.
Canada grabbed a spot in the World Championship that, based on talent, should have gone to the Dominican Republic in the qualifier held last summer in Puerto Rico. The Canadians tried to recruit Spurs big man Matt Bonner to join the team, but they eventually were left with nothing because his citizenship procedure was not expedited properly.
The Canadians played in the Efes Pilsen Cup in Ankara, Turkey, a tournament preceding the start of the FIBA World Championship. In that competition, they lost to Argentina 79-64 in a game that was much closer than the result suggests and then fell to Turkey by a wide margin of 84-53.
Perhaps the biggest victories by Rautins' team in the series of friendlies came against Serbia by 62-58 (one day before the Greeks and Serbians produced a scandalous fight among themselves) with an inspired Denham Brown (22 points, 17 in the first half). But it must be said that neither Nenad Krstic nor Milos Teodosic, key players on Dusan Ivkovic's team, were on the floor that night.
And this is a prime example of what we have to expect from Canada in Group D, because in its previous game before facing Serbia, it had been routed by Greece ... 123-49. It is clear that Rautins' team is a double-edged sword, so irregular that it can either kill or be killed on consecutive nights.
What happens with this roster in Turkey 2010? It is expected it will advance to the second round, but not much farther than that. The Canadians will debut Saturday against Lebanon, in a game they have to win at any cost if they want to fulfill their promise as a team in any way.
Coach: Sergio Scariolo
Analysis: Here it is: This is the team to beat in this group.
The last world champion will be a dangerous team in Turkey 2010. It is a deep team, with a lot of talent, character and international experience. It won the EuroBasket 2009 tournament and is the prime candidate to take the crown in Turkey.
So much for the positives. The losses of Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon are the negative points. Will the absence of Lakers center Gasol be an important factor in this tournament? To tell the truth, experience says it will be. In the European tournament last year in Poland, Spain struggled while Gasol sat out due to injuries and saw its production take a 180-degree turn with him on the floor, to the point of cruising to the gold without any objections.
In the case of Calderon, the problem lies in his experience. A muscular injury in the friendly against Team USA will deprive Sergio Scariolo's team of its backbone player of so many years and will leave Ricky Rubio along with Khimki's Raul Lopez as the two available playmakers.
Rubio will miss Gasol, the Spanish mainstay.
"We don't have Pau with us, and whoever says that this does not affect us is lying, because Pau is the leader of this team," Rubio told FIBA.com.
In any case, this will be a tournament Spain could use as a transition for a generational change in the paint. Players such as Fran Vazquez and Victor Claver will have their chances of showing what they are made of.
The perimeter is filled with the most talent (with the exception of Team USA) of the entire competition: Rubio, Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Llull … and the list goes on.
Scariolo's team showed in the past few friendlies (at the Magic Box in Madrid) that it is a rougher team than Lithuania and barely less athletic than Mike Krzyzewski's Team USA (after being defeated 86-85).
It will be a good team in stationary play due to the point guards' good control of the ball and the quality of the internal players with great explosiveness in transition, thanks to players like Rubio, Rudy and Llull.
In order to fight for the gold, they must lock their defense, making use of their big men to make a difference in the rebounding department. It is a team that has enough material to repeat its championship-winning effort. It will be a matter of time to see whether it can replace its traditional leaders (Gasol and Calderon) when the games begin.
Spain's story begins Saturday against France.
Coach: Vincent Collet
Analysis: The Bleu are perhaps the clearest example (other than the U.S., of course) of a team that could have been heavenly and ended up being entirely pedestrian.
We are talking about four NBA players not playing for different reasons. That's too many for a team that pretends to be making a quality leap in top FIBA competitions.
Whatever the case might be, France still can be dangerous in Group D. With its captain, Boris Diaw, in the paint, Nicolas Batum on the perimeter and the promising Nando De Colo handling the ball, Vincent Collet's team has enough arguments to force its rivals to ask themselves at least a few serious questions before facing it.
The Bleus defeated Ivory Coast 74-66 in a recent friendly with Batum and Ali Traore as offensive leaders of the team, and before that, they defeated Brazil 58-56, a valuable victory when we see that both Nene Hilario and Tiago Splitter were on the court for the Brazilian team.
In that game, Ian Mahinmi fractured his middle finger, leaving him in doubt for the games in Turkey, although there is optimism regarding his progress.
What can we expect of France in Group D? An athletic team, with good defense and willingness to show it can overcome the loss of stellar players. The Bleus will be competitive, and it is expected that they will advance to the second round without any major problems.They start their schedule Saturday against Spain.
Coach: Tab Baldwin
Analysis: We cannot expect Lebanon (a wild-card team) to play an important role in this tournament. But we cannot assume the other teams will squash it like a summer bug.
Lebanon is one of the most powerful Asian representatives but still is several steps behind the basketball powerhouses of the world. Among its most relevant trials, one stands out: its title-winning effort at the Boris Stankovic Cup in Asia (after beating Japan 97-59) and the great role it played against Argentina at the Efes Pilsen Cup, after having fallen 93-72 against Turkey, one of the strongest teams in the world.
The Lebanese roster came together only three weeks before the start of the Stankovic Cup, and that's when coach Tab Baldwin took the helm, achieving the first title in the history of Lebanese basketball in an Asian championship.
It is an experienced team with good ballhandling (the historic Fadi El Khatib) and with great stature and talent in the paint, where there are two NBA players: the American-born Matt Freije (who played for the Guaynabo Mets in Puerto Rico and had appearances with the New Orleans Hornets and Atlanta Hawks) and Jackson Vroman (played for the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets).
Lebanon will look to break all forecasts, which place it alongside New Zealand as the weakest team of the group. This will be its third consecutive appearance in a World Championship, after having participated in 2002 and 2006. It will debut Saturday against Canada.
Coach: Kestutis Kemzura
Key player: Linas Kleiza
Analysis: This team, one of the most solid competitors in the FIBA circuit, has only one outstanding player on its roster.
Power forward Linas Kleiza (former Olympiacos, currently with the Toronto Raptors of the NBA) absorbs all the offensive action in the stationary attack, as well as providing great help on the defensive side. But a lack of offensive flow ends up damaging the team play of the Lithuanians, who see themselves chained to the former Nugget's hands.
Kestutis Kemzura's team conquered the BEKO Supercup in preparation for this tournament, defeating Croatia and Germany, and had already defeated Turkey. Against the United States and Spain, two of the most powerful teams in this tournament, the Lithuanians weren't up to the task. Against Mike Krzyzewski's team, they lost 77-61, and against Sergio Scariolo's team, they fell 94-75.
In this tournament, they won't have the NBA's Zydrunas Ilgauskas nor brothers Darjus and Ksystof Lavrinovic. And neither will they have Sarunas Jasikevicius, Rimantas Kaukenas, Ramunas Siskauskas, Darius Songaila, Marijonas Petravicius and Arturas Jomantas. It is safe to say they have suffered a total collapse.
"The team has only one giant in the middle: Robertas Javtokas," Kemzura told FIBA.com.
This is not a minor issue if we realize that, for years, Lithuania imposed its game from the outside-in (perimeter-paint) with a good depth of penetration in the paint. The Lithuanians still have elite shooters and will come to this tournament without so much pressure on them, because under normal conditions, with a full team, the five starters of today would be substitutes (this speaks also of the depth of their bench).
Lithuania, which received a wild-card invite to Turkey 2010, will start as a fearsome team in Group D, even though its lack of big-name players means it will struggle in its attempt to reach the championship.The team will debut against New Zealand on Saturday.
Coach: Nenad Vucinic
Key player: Kirk Penney
Analysis: We will not see this team shine the way it did at the 2002 FIBA World Championship.
The Tall Blacks of today (even though they still have Pero Cameron on their roster) are almost a memory of that successful team. They don't really resemble the team that reached fourth position in Indianapolis.
Guard Kirk Penney, a FIBA globetrotter who had a past in the NBA with the Heat and also defended the colors of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Zalgiris, is the captain of the team coached by Nenad Vucinic.
In preparation for Turkey 2010, the Tall Blacks played in the Zadar, Croatia, tournament along Jordan, Russia and Croatia, defeating the Russians (67-65), but falling to Croatia (93-88) and Jordan (65-62).
"We are good at rebounds considering our size," Vucinic said after the defeat against Croatia.
That will be precisely the problem against New Zealand: stature. With the exception of Alex Pledger (7-0), Craig Bradshaw (6-9) and Casey Frank (6-8), the team doesn't fit its nickname. This team needs to rely on controlling the ball, running every time it can and causing damage from a distance. This team should use a zone defense, naturally, because its stature does not allow it to do one-on-one defense against taller men.
What can we expect from New Zealand? Advancing to the second round would be a great accomplishment, but only a miracle should allow the Tall Blacks to win one more game than that. Vucinic's team will debut Saturday against Lithuania.
Bruno Altieri writes for ESPNdeportes.com. Click here for his archive.