The way things have been going, Americans should have expected a tough road back to Olympic men’s basketball gold.
“It’s been that kind of a year,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.
The U.S., reeling from major injuries to NBA stars Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose, was placed into what appears to be the more difficult group Monday during the draw for the London Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The defending champions face powerful Argentina, France and Tunisia in Group A, plus two more teams from a last-chance qualifying tournament in Venezuela in July. Solid European squads such as Lithuania, Russia and Greece – the last team to beat the USA squad – are favorites to grab those spots.
Argentina, the 2004 gold and ’08 bronze medalist, will have Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola back. The resurgent French were the European runners-up last year behind San Antonio point guard Tony Parker. Tunisia earned its first Olympic berth by beating Angola last year for the African championship. The Tunisians trailed the Americans by only four points in the third quarter at the world championship two years ago, before the U.S. pulled away for a 92-57 victory.
“It appears that our group, Group A, is going to be extremely competitive,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It’s a tough draw with a former Olympic champion in Argentina; France is another powerful team, a veteran team that is extremely talented; Tunisia continues to improve, and then our group will add the top two teams from the FIBA World Qualifying Tournament. In the Olympics you only have 12 countries qualify so you’re going to have tough draws, and that’s why winning a gold medal is such a great accomplishment.”
Spain, the 2008 silver medalist, heads Group B, which includes Australia, Brazil, China and Britain. One qualifier from Venezuela will join them.
“The one thing you know is you’ve got to beat them all. To win it, you’ve got to beat everybody,” Colangelo said.
The top four teams in each pool advance to the quarterfinals. And with the retired Yao Ming no longer playing for China, and Golden State center Andrew Bogut unable to play for Australia after ankle surgery, the hosts may have a chance to be one of them.
“Although there is never an easy game at this level, I’m happy with the draw,” British team captain Drew Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
The American women’s team, winners of the last four Olympic gold medals, has the easier draw – Group A, with China, Angola and three teams from the qualifying tournament played in Turkey in June. Group B consists of Australia, Brazil, Britain, Russia and two qualifiers.
The biggest game of the preliminary round will be between the Russians and Australians to determine who gets the No. 1 seed in that pool and avoids playing the U.S. until potentially the gold-medal game.
The Olympic basketball tournaments will take place from July 28-Aug. 12.
U.S. women’s coach Geno Auriemma said that although the Americans’ draw looks better now, it may not turn out that way.
“People might say we’ve got an easier draw than teams in the other bracket, but you have to remember that China is the Asian champion. They have been climbing back up the world ranks and finished in the top four in Beijing, and Angola will be excited about playing in their first Olympics,” Auriemma said.
“Don’t forget, we could end up with a very tough pool once the Olympic qualifying tournament plays out. There are a lot of very competitive teams still trying to play their way into the Olympics, like the Czech Republic. They finished second at the worlds two years ago; they have a very disciplined and well-coached team. Regardless of who we have in our opening pool, we’re still going to have to get through a lot of very good teams if we want to win gold,” he said.
The American men beat Spain four years ago for the gold medal and are favored to repeat, but they will arrive in London weaker than the group that could have drawn comparisons to the Dream Team. Starting center Howard had back surgery and point guard Rose, the NBA’s reigning MVP, tore a knee ligament Saturday.
That has forced the Americans to change their plans of announcing their 12-man roster in late May. Colangelo, meeting with Krzyzewski and his staff Monday and Tuesday in Las Vegas, said the roster likely will now be chosen much closer to the June 18 deadline.
The Americans had named a pool of 20 finalists in January, but with candidates Chauncey Billups and LaMarcus Aldridge already lost to injuries, they may now be forced to add players just so they have the allowable six alternates.
“On the injury side, no news is good news, and that’s not the way it’s been,” Colangelo said. “You take two out of your potential 12 and they go down and they’re out, that’s a blow no matter what. The important thing now is to focus on who would be, what would the makeup be of a roster.”
Former Brazil players Hortencia and Paula, silver medalists at the Atlanta Games in 1996, participated in the women’s draw in Rio, which will host the 2016 Games. Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s career scoring leader, helped in the men’s draw.
“The 2008 men’s final between the U.S. and Spain was one of the greatest Olympic moments,” said FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann, an IOC member. “It showed the huge strides international basketball had made in becoming more and more competitive. I expect this year’s Olympic basketball tournaments will be a great and memorable spectacle for all.”
Both sides will be short-handed if there’s a rematch, the Spaniards having already lost point guard Ricky Rubio to a knee injury during what had been a stellar rookie season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Brazilian men’s team will be playing in the Olympics for the first time since the Atlanta Games. It had failed to qualify for the last three Olympic tournaments.
Other teams participating in the men’s Olympic qualifying tournament will be Angola, Dominican Republic, Macedonia, Jordan, South Korea, New Zealand, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, and host Venezuela.
The women’s tournament will include Argentina, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Japan, South Korea, Mali, Mozambique, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and host Turkey.
AP Basketball Writer Doug Feinberg contributed to this report.
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