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29/08/2014
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Group D Preview: Continental giants collide in Gran Canaria

GRAN CANARIA (FIBA Basketball World Cup) - Medallists from all five continents do battle as Group D of the FIBA Basketball World Cup tips off in Gran Canaria on Saturday.

Many pundits had Lithuania pencilled in to claim first place, but the loss of floor general Mantas Kalnietis has thrown the group wide open.

The Green Machine frontcourt led by Ksistof Lavrinovic, Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas is still an imposing force, but much pressure will be placed on young playmaker Sarunas Vasiliauskas and natural shooting guards Martynas Pocius and Renaldas Seibutis.

If they can't fill Kalnietis' shoes finding rolling big men and spot-up shooters like Pocius, Seibutis, Lavrinovic, Jonas Maciulis and Simas Jasaitis, the Lithuanian offence could lose some of its trademark fluency.

The European silver medallists open the tournament against Mexico, the Americas champions, who will be looking to put some troubling lead-up defeats behind them.

The good news is that highly-skilled centre Gustavo Ayon has shaken off the effects of injury on his way to Spain 2014, and the Round of 16 is a genuine possibility in Mexico's first appearance in this tournament since 1974, but two factors are critical.

The first is the three-point shooting led by Hector Hernandez and Orlando Mendez, which not only spreads the defence for Ayon to go to work, but also makes the Mexicans a dangerous and unpredictable team in transition.

The second is ensuring Ayon gets quality touches in good positions, so be certain opposition teams will target point guard Jorge Gutierrez with a constant dose of pressure.

No team likes to make it difficult for opposition floor generals more than Oceania Australia, who have warmly embraced their new disruptive approach on defence.

The likes of Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Brad Newley and Chris Goulding excel in an open-court game, where raw teenage sensation Dante Exum has also shown some exciting glimpses.

The question mark is whether their less speedy frontcourt of David Andersen, Aron Baynes and Cameron Bairstow can handle the high workload, particularly as the Boomers try to derail the disciplined execution of Slovenia in the tournament opener.

Few teams in the group can match Slovenia's perimeter pack of Goran and Zoran Dragic, Jaka Klobucar and Domen Lorbek, and if Goran is able to use ball-screens as he wishes, particularly in transition, this Slovenian team will be very difficult to stop.

Where their rivals will be eyeing weakness is on the boards, with four of the team's top five leading rebounders from EuroBasket 2013 not playing this tournament.

While the mobility of Slovenia's frontcourt will give them some advantages, experienced big men Miha Zupan and Uros Slokar, and emerging small forward Edo Muric will have to do a power of work on the glass.

Another team that must hide their size disadvantage is Korea, who will rely on the experience of centre Kim Joo Sung and point guard Yang Donggeun to allow them to rebound and play at pace under physical pressure from bigger teams.

The Koreans have been light-on for lead-up matches, but were very competitive against New Zealand in July, troubling the Tall Blacks with their deadly perimeter shooting.

Oh Sekeun and Moon Taejong lead the way from distance, but given the Koreans shot 46 per cent from the arc in their bronze medal run at last summer's FIBA Asia Championship, defenders slip under any screen at their peril.

Crunch time comes in the tournament's opening game when Korea and Angola meet, with the loser facing an uphill battle to make the knockout rounds.

The Angolans were impressive in winning the title at AfroBasket 2013, but the withdrawal of tournament MVP Carlos Morais just weeks before tip-off is a genuine blow.

Dangerous point guard Olimpio Cipriano will still be a handful, and the presence of veterans Armando Costa, Joaquim Gomes, Reggie Moore and Eduardo Mingas gives the perennial African representatives plenty of experience.

Though their lead-up form hasn't been ideal, if the athletic Angolans can produce a dominant performance on the boards a trip to the Spanish mainland is not out of the question.

Come next Thursday, only four of these continental powers will escape Gran Canaria and head for Barcelona with medals in their sights. Who will they be?

FIBA