Olympic basketball Power Rankings
LONDON -- Mike Krzyzewski said it in Manchester, said it Barcelona and said it again Friday afternoon when the coach who's sporting a 54-1 record in international competition met the world media at Team USA's first news conference of the Olympics.
"There are a number of teams that can beat us in this tournament," Coach K insisted. "We know that."
Precisely how many of the other 11 countries entered can legitimately pull that off is a matter of debate, but surely we can all agree that trotting out a special FIBA edition of ESPN.com's Power Rankings -- listing the men's Olympic basketball entrants from 1 to 12 -- can't be a bad thing. Right?
1. UNITED STATES
There's a reason bovada.lv has Team USA listed at 1-10 odds to win its second consecutive gold medal despite everyone who's not here. Even without the injured Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin, Krzyzewski's roster is teeming with depth, length, strength and plain hard-to-guard talent that actually managed to overshoot the worst fears of some international experts during the Yanks' five-game exhibition swing, most notably when they thumped Spain in Spain.
While their lack of proven centers outside of Tyson Chandler, Chandler's penchant for foul trouble and the ever-present fear that one bad shooting night at the wrong time could all doom the Americans, coaches from other countries chuckle when you try to tell them about their advantages in terms of, say, continuity or having an established pecking order. There isn't a coach in this field, having witnessed the withering defense Team USA can produce, who wouldn't trade for Coach K's problems.
No one question's Spain's credentials. It has the talent (seven players with NBA experience) and the expertise in FIBA conditions (reigning European champions and 2006 world champions) to upset the United States. And the Spaniards are certainly due after a few close calls against Coach K-led squads in 2008 and 2010.
Yet it's easy to forget that Pau Gasol's crew has been hit by injury as hard as the Americans -- maybe even harder when you consider its smaller talent pool. Besides the unavailability of Ricky Rubio (knee), three key members of the team -- Marc Gasol (shoulder), Juan Carlos Navarro (back/foot) and Rudy Fernandez (back) --- are somewhat compromised by injuries.
Is the silver-medal favorite healthy enough to take advantage of its size edge on Team USA? Do the Spaniards have enough shooting to space the floor around the bigs? Those are legit questions.
Outside of Spain, no team worries Team USA more than the Brazilians. And that's good enough for us to bump them ahead of Argentina and into the medal reaches of the pre-tournament rankings. You'll hear lots in the coming days about their bruising trio of NBA big men (Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter), their dynamic backcourt partnership boasting a supreme playmaker (Marcelinho Huertas) and a speedy finisher (Leandro Barbosa) and their coach (Argentine Ruben Magnano) who is revered internationally like Coach K is domestically.
The discipline and direction Magnano's system provides and the trouble they gave Team USA in a warm-up game with President Barack Obama in the house clinched a top-three spot going in. (Dare I say that Bovada will rue having the Brazilians sixth at 40-to-1. Sixth?)
Too old to cope with an every-other-day schedule? Best days are behind 'em? Swan song for a golden generation? Something tells me Manu Ginobili has heard it all before.
Eight years removed from the gold medal in Athens that shook USA Basketball to its core and prompted the Yanks to revamp their whole program, Argentina has been subjected to a lot of the dismissive "they're done" talk that greets Ginobili's Spurs most years. The truth is that Ginobili & Co. are indeed old by tournament standards, with an average age of 33 in the starting lineup, but don't forget that no team played the Americans closer in their five warm-up games.
Although depth and size are issues, I'm not going to be the guy who writes off a group that, when you see the names (Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni, Carlos Delfino and soon-to-be New York Knick Pablo Prigioni) next to Ginobili's, demands respect at this level.
The Russians finished third behind Spain and France at EuroBasket 2011 and they're a feared wild card in London, even more than the French if you buy into the pre-tournament chatter. Princeton alumnus David Blatt has long been one of most respected coaches outside of the NBA, blessed with the ability with his current squad to trot out size everywhere you look on the floor.
"When you play them, it feels like they're 6-7 and up at all times," one rival coach said.
Players to watch: Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov, recent Timberwolves acquisition Alexey Shved, scoring guard Vitaly Fridzon -- "Russia's answer to Navarro," said the same coach -- and Minnesota-bound FIBA force Andrei Kirilenko, freshly rejuvenated by his Euroleague MVP season at CSKA Moscow.
Les Bleus are in the midst of their most successful spell as a basketball country, but they don't pose the same threat with Joakim Noah absent because of a left ankle injury and Tony Parker sporting goggles after the nightclub incident that badly damaged his left eye.
You'll have a level of familiarity with several players on this roster: Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and Kevin Seraphin. San Antonio-bound Nando De Colo and Florent Pietrus, brother of Mickael Pietrus, are known quantities, too.
Yet as one rival coach aptly put it: "These guys are extremely Tony Parker dependent." How well Parker plays so soon after his eye scare will determine how far France goes.
Dangerous floater is probably the best way to describe Lithuania. This roster, thanks in part to the injury absence of seasoned big man Robertas Javtokas, lacks the depth and know-how of the Lithuanian squads that racked up three bronzes and two fourth-place finishes in their first five trips to the Olympics as an independent nation.
Yet you can rest assured that no one looks forward to playing these guys. You can also rest assured that, with longtime Stein Line HQ favorite Sarunas Jasikevicius still running the show at age 36 and bouncy rookie big man Jonas Valanciunas about to receive his first dose of extended exposure to an NBA audience before joining the Toronto Raptors, your trusted rankings committee (of one) will be at the front of the line to watch them.
Even without another Stein Line favorite -- star center Andrew Bogut is out thanks to ankle surgery -- Australia has the best chance to emerge from the bottom five teams to claim the final spot in the single-elimination round that begins with the quarterfinals. That's the sentiment that began to circulate strongly after a couple of strong exhibition showings against Spain.
The Aussies, as usual, are known for playing a physical game even without Bogut in support of lead guard Patty Mills, who is sure to see the ball a ton to make up for the limited role he has in San Antonio. Aussie big man David Andersen has a key role and ample motivation, too, with sources close to the former Rocket/Raptor/Hornet telling ESPN.com that Andersen hopes to play his way back into the NBA with his showing at this tournament.
9. GREAT BRITAIN
It's difficult not to root for Luol Deng to sneak the host country into the quarterfinals and a near-certain matchup with Team USA in the knockout rounds knowing that Deng, whose family found refuge in the United Kingdom after leaving their native Sudan, has put off wrist surgery because representing Great Britain in its first taste of Olympic basketball since London hosted the 1948 Games means that much to him.
It's difficult to see how Team GB is going to get that far in its current state, though, with two of its top six players -- point guard Mike Lenzly and combo forward Dan Clark -- carrying worrisome injuries. The hosts and their deep American coaching staff (Chris Finch, Nick Nurse and Paul Mokeski) need huge play from Deng, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Joel Freeland, as well as the magic of home-court advantage, to score the wins they need over Argentina and China to get to the single-elimination stage.
As well as Nigeria played in the last-chance qualifying tournament earlier this month in Venezuela just to get to London -- besting the John Calipari-coached Dominican Republic in the final to claim the final Olympic spot that had been widely forecasted to go to Greece -- this ranking might be a spot or two low.
Brothers Al-Farouq Aminu and Alade Aminu team with former NBAer Ike Diogu in a more-than-passable frontcourt rotation, with Israel-based Tony Skinn being counted on to supply something out of the backcourt for the Nigerians, who are making their debut in Olympic men's basketball after a third-place finish at the 2011 African championships. And they're making it with a good bit of momentum after those qualifying wins over Greece and Lithuania.
Expectations, as always, far exceed the realistic ceiling for China, even in the post-Yao Ming era. Thanks to the huge production it receives on the international stage from Yi Jianlian and the influence of American coach Bob Donewald, China won the Asian title in 2011 to secure Olympic qualification.
The truth, though, is that just getting to London was China's Olympics, even though (A) Yi is unquestionably a different player with his national team's jersey on and (B) no one in China wants to hear or read that. The good news: Donewald has made a habit of getting more from this group than expected and has had them together since March to play nearly 40 -- yes, forty -- warm-up games.
If these were the Olympic Basketball Continuity Rankings, Tunisia would easily crack the upper half. Its players are largely unknown even to folks who work in the sport, but it's a group that has been together for some time and, by all accounts, knows how to play together.
The reality, though, is that this is Tunisia's maiden Olympics after winning the African title in 2011 and pretty much no one sees them winning a game. One international scout acquainted with the squad nonetheless insists that it is fun to watch and, in 7-foot center Salah Mejri, has at least one name that's blipped on the NBA radar thanks a summer-league stint with the Utah Jazz.
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