United States of America
At long last, everything seems to be heading in the right direction for Team USA. The "buy in" factor is high, the chemistry is outstanding and the coach is as good at people management as anyone in the basketball world.
However, there are some dangers lurking. First, can the Americans develop great team cohesion, offensively and defensively, in three weeks when some of their opponents have been together for a much longer period of time? Second, can a team made up largely of scorers become a team of role players in three weeks? Finally, once the U.S. gets out of the preliminary round, a formality, can it play under the pressure of an NCAA Tournament-like "one and done" situation in the next four games?
No matter how good everything is looking right now, this won't be easy.
This team has four NBA first-round picks and three second-round picks on its roster, and there is very little buzz about them.
Until 1991, Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia and has produced its share of basketball talent but has been lost in the shadows of Serbia and Croatia. The best-known players of this group are Beno Udrih of the Spurs, Rasho Nesterovic of the Raptors and Primoz Brezec of the Bobcats.
However, Slovenia's most valuable player may be Jaka Lakovic, a 5-foot-9 dynamo who will play for Barcelona this coming season.
If Slovenia isn't happy just to be in this tournament, it has the talent to be one of its most surprising teams.
While the Italians have gained a lot of respect recently, they too are undergoing a great deal of change. Five of Italy's top six scorers from last year's European Championship are gone. Its future franchise player, 7-1 Andrea Bargnani, elected to spend his summer preparing for his first NBA season. And four of its starters are likely to be 24 years old or younger.
In fact, veteran coach Carlo Recalcati is using this tournament to prepare for next year's European Championship. The future of Italian basketball rests with the 20-year-old scoring machine, Marco Belinelli, who will be Italy's key guy. Along with Bargnani and 18-year-old phenom Danilo Gallinari, Belinelli will anchor Italy's national team for the next decade. A good showing in Japan would be something Recalcati would be happy to build on.
No Yao, no chance. That summarizes what is in store for China the next two weeks.
If Yao Ming can round into form quickly after missing all of the spring and summer following a broken bone in his left foot late in the NBA season, then China can advance out of group play. He will need help from 19-year-old Yi Jianlian, a 6-11 forward who is heading toward lottery status whenever he declares for the NBA draft.
Yi is a skilled athlete who can play both forward positions. Du Feng is a sweet-shooting small forward who scored 18 points in China's exhibition loss to the U.S. last week.
Guard play is usually China's Achilles' heel, and with its most experienced guard, Li Nan, out of the tournament with an injury, this should be a big problem again.
This team is the dog that bites your pants leg and won't let go. Puerto Rico always plays with passion and with a chip on its shoulder. Go back to the 1976 Olympics, when Butch Lee and his team gave Dean Smith's gold medal-winning U.S. squad its toughest game, a 95-94 overtime escape.
This year's Puerto Rico team was drubbed by Team USA in Las Vegas, and frankly, it could happen again. The backcourt is solid, with the Magic's Carlos Arroyo leading the way.
Ricky Apodaca and Larry Ayuso are not NBA-level guards, but have enough NCAA and international experience to scare the best teams in this field on a given night. Daniel Santiago, a journeyman NBA center, is crafty enough to hurt you.
Senegal has five NBA-level big men who will not, for varying reasons, compete for the national team in this tournament.
Pape Sow was injured in a Raptors summer league contest and is out. The Mavs' DeSagana Diop and the Clippers' Boniface N'Dong elected not to play, and 2006 NBA draft picks Saer Sene and Cheick Samb won't suit up, either. So things are not looking up for Senegal.
Changing the subject, Sitapha Savane, a 6-7 forward and the son of a Senegalese politician who actually paid his own way to the United States Naval Academy, had a very solid four-year career in Annapolis. He plays in the Spanish ACB league and hopes to follow in his father's footsteps after his professional career is over.
My Final Eight
1. United States