By: Rob Scott / @robscott33
Group B is perhaps the most intriguing and open groups of them all, with no dominant power like the USA or Spain. Croatia came into the tournament with the best recent performance, having finished fourth at Eurobasket 2013. Greece can get revenge for their double-OT defeat to the Croatians last summer, which meant they missed the Eurobasket quarter finals and had to buy back into this contest, sending FIBA a reputed six-figure sum for a wildcard.
Argentina would have been the clear favourites here a few years back, and maybe even now if Manu Ginobili was available. They still come with a skilled front court, with veterans of the Generacion de Oro Andres Nocioni, Luis Scola and Walter Hermann still hanging in there, along with the ageless Pablo Prigioni steering the ship.
The group is rounded out by Puerto Rico, Senegal and the Phillipines. Three teams from three different continents that will be looking to beat each other to get the fourth qualifying spot, with Puerto Rico the clear favourites.
You can’t mention international basketball without thinking of the mid-00s Argentina squad that beat the USA in 2002 at the World Championships. Then again on the way to Olympic gold in 2004. That was a while ago though, and the last fling for this team as a medal contender may have been two years ago in London.
There won’t be a craftier frontcourt than Scola and Nocioni, but the backcourt wants for creativity. Marcos Mata will float around the wing and knock down threes, but like most players he’s a poor substitute for Ginobili’s magic. There has been a generation gap in Argentine hoops, with no world class players entering their prime to take over from the Golden Generation.
Prigioni may get the starting nod but Facundo Campazzo should be the impact playmaker, and his penetration to set up pick and pop with Scola will be crucial in manufacturing easy points. His flashy distribution has already earned him a deal with Real Madrid and he may have to take responsibility for scoring himself. Upfront, a pair of undersized youngsters fill the middle. Marcos Delia is 2.06m, 1992 born, and his backup Matias Bortolin is 2.07m and a year younger. Both play domestically and could be overwhelmed by the likes of Tomic and Bourousis.
In preparation games, the Albiceleste have lost to Brazil, Puerto Rico, Serbia and suffered a 33-point demolition by Spain, with wins over Brazil, Angola and Mexico. They should have enough to make it through the group, but the knockout round is likely to be the last chapter in the story of one of the all-time great generations.
Croatia is one of the most fascinating teams to watch in this World Cup, possibly the most talented European team outside of Spain. Dario Saric has been a reason to watch every summer youth tournament since 2010 when he won MVP of the u16 European Championships, and this World Cup is no different. He will start at the power forward position and look to continue his rise to the top of the international game.
Either side of him in the lineup is Ante Tomic, the most skilled offensive centre in Europe, and Bojan Bogdanovic, one of the few elite wing volume-scorers left on the continent until he signed with Brooklyn this summer. He should be backed up by Mario Hezonja, once mentioned in the same breath as Saric but buried at the bottom of the rotation in Barcelona over the past year. To even think of Saric, Bogdanovic and Hezonja sharing the floor together is enough to make this the group to watch of the whole first round.
That level of talent doesn’t quite permeate down the rotation, but guys like Damjan Rudez and Luka Babic are more than capable of taking advantage when the defense has to leave gaps. Luka Zoric will work hard in the middle as always, so it’s really only at the point guard position where doubts remain. As the epicentre of hoops development in Europe, it’s somewhat depressing that Croatia has seen fit to import a ringer, and Oliver Lafayette will start at the one, backed up by Roko Ukic. The best solution would be to just hand the ball to Saric as point forward and put shooters orbiting Tomic. That would be awesome.
Greece is shorthanded, missing Vasilis Spanoulis amongst others, so its up to Nick Calathes and Nikos Zisis to be creative. The roster is full of veteran elite Euroleague players, for the most part, with the added intrigue of NBA revelation Giannis Antetokoumnpo. Don’t assume that NBA mantle means much in this tournament though. There’s a whole-world in-between learning on the job at a bottoming out NBA team and the pressure of must-win games for the national team. Young Giannis won’t be given much rope on this squad, if the warmup games are anything to go by, but he has the ability to split double teams and create points out of nothing, which could be very necessary.
With Zisis and Calathes, there is enough creativity to run an effective pick and roll offense, with players like Sloukas, Mantzaris and Papanikolaou, former club-colleagues who excel in spotting up around the perimeter. But the preparation games have seen a messy, post-up offense with terrible spacing. Mike Bramos would have been a huge addition here.
Sloukas showed last summer that he can play a bigger offensive role than at Olympiacos, and if Ioannis Bourousis is in a good mood, he’s a handful for any defense. But as the games get bigger, his iffy pick and roll defense and even more doubtful personality issues could be harshly magnified.
Puerto Rico is a perennial Latin American presence at World tournaments, and if their victory over the USA in 2004 was a long time ago, they’re still dining out on it. A pair of diminutive scoring guards will carry the load, with Carlos Arroyo fresh from dribbling the air of out of the ball and throwing lob passes all over Turkey, and JJ Barea freed from the confines of Minnesota and eager to breathe.
Elsewhere on the roster, Renaldo Balkman is a familiar if not popular name in both the NBA and the Philippines, and (the rights to) big man Ricky Sanchez have been involved in multiple NBA trades since being drafted in 2005, without him getting any closer in reality than the D-League. The pedigree of this team isn’t deep, with starting wing Alexander Franklin once playing in the LEB Oro in Spain, and Ramon Clemente in the Italian second division. Still, with veterans like Arroyo and Barea able to carry the burden of scoring, they should be able to beat Senegal and Philippines, and they defeated Argentina last week in a preparation game.
The Afrobasket bronze-medal winners come with a top-heavy roster to their second World Cup appearance, and will be looking to make opponents pay for banging in the middle with Gorgui Dieng. Dieng, who didn’t play at Afrobasket, was the 21st pick in the 2013 NBA Draft out out Louisville and currently plays with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He already has a 22 point, 21 rebound NBA game under his belt, and will at least ensure that some points are wiped out at the rim. Hamady N’Diaye has floated around the D-League and China since being selected in the second round in 2010 and should spell Dieng in the middle.
In the backcourt, Maleye N’Doye is the standout, still relatively explosive at 34 years old, putting up 9 points per game for Paris Levalois between the French Pro A and Eurocup last season.
They haven’t played too many preparation games, splitting a pair with Estonia, beating Mexico and going down heavily to Spain and Dominican Republic. Don’t expect too much from this team, but they should leave with some highlight reel plays from Dieng at the very least.
If there were points awarded for devoted fans flooding the internet with passionate support for their team, the Philippines would be favourites for this tournament. A country of 100 million people where basketball is king, you would think that this would be a burgeoning hoops powerhouse. Unfortunately, cursed with a lack of height in the gene pool, they have brought in Andray Blatche to fill the WTF-passport spot. Guard Paul Dalistan is listed on the FIBA site as 5’12”, and it says a lot about their approach to the game that both somehow makes perfect sense. More sense than naturalising Byron Mullens anyway.
Let’s concentrate on the positives here: The Gilas will win a lot of friends over the next week or so. There will be heartwarming profiles of crazy fans, pieces to camera about how much the game means to the millions of folks back home. Then people will realise that Andray Blatche is their go-to player and they lost to Ukraine by 50 points. I feel like a jerk for pointing that out, but I feel like it’s pertinent. But hey, they will have fun and that’s more than can be said about a lot of other teams.
Most Watchable Team: Croatia
It’s a Croatia-heavy preview, but it’s hard to choose any other team. All Dario Everything in Group B.
Lineup You Really Want To See
Croatia: Dario Saric - Mario Hezonja - Bojan Bogdanovic- Damjan Rudez - Ante Tomic
Your centre is Tomic, and it doesn’t really matter what you call anyone else. Saric running point, surrounded by Tomic and three other shooters. I’m not sure how they’d guard anyone, but with offensive talent this nice, who cares? I was too young to see Bodiroga in his prime, this is as close as I’ll get.
G Facundo Campazzo, Argentina - Real Madrid’s new point guard will give Euroleague fans a preview of what they can expect, from a talented and scrappy competitor.
G Mario Hezonja, Croatia - Super Mario has plateaued a bit over the past year, but Barcelona fans have already had glimpses of what he can do.
F Giannis Antetokoumnpo, Greece - It’s difficult to imagine not being intrigued about a player with this skill set.
F Dario Saric, Croatia - On a steady upward curve from youth dominance, Adriatic League MVP, NBA lottery pick and the next couple years under Duda’s wing.
C Gorgui Dieng, Senegal - In a group with some small front lines, he could make some waves during Senegal’s likely brief stay