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SPAIN 2014: Win and move on or lose and go home
BARCELONA/MADRID (FIBA Basketball World Cup) - What began as a 24-team tournament with games being played in four Spanish cities is now an event with 16 sides in Barcelona and Madrid.
We are now closer to finding a champion in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
The Round of 16 games will be played this weekend and the situation for all title aspirants is simple and straightforward.
It's win and move on to the Quarter-Finals, or lose and go home.
The next phase tips off on Saturday, and here is a look at each of the eight match-ups.
USA v Mexico (Barcelona)
The FIBA Basketball World Cup has another David v Goliath as the defending champions United States of America square off against Mexico, last year's FIBA Americas Champions.
The USA have won this competition, formerly known as the FIBA World Championship, on four occasions but never twice in a row. That means that the youngest squad in this year's tournament will attempt to repeat for the first time since the USA won four years ago in Istanbul. They have appeared in every one of the competitions dating back to 1950, the first that was staged in Argentina.
In stark contrast, Mexico last featured in a World Championship in 1974.
Mike Krzyzewski's Americans swept all before them in Bilbao, beating Finland, Turkey, New Zealand, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine by an average of 33.2 points per game. That margin may be slightly skewed when considering the opener against the Finns was a 59-point blowout.
Mexico won two of their three games in a Group D which included pool winners Lithuania, Slovenia and Australia. Sergio Valdeolmillos' squad progressed by virtue of its two decisive wins over the Angola (79-55) and Korea (87-71).
The fast-breaking USA have size, quickness, perimeter shooters, rebounding and most of all, excellent defense. The team’s most valuable player thus far is power forward Kenneth Faried. A 2.03m (6ft 8in) power forward, Faried has averaged 13.8 points per game in 21.8 minutes per game while shooting 79.1 percent from the field. He has been a dominant player on the boards, averaging 7.8 rebounds.
The USA have not shown any weaknesses, but one thing is clear. They want to play uptempo and in no way will Mexico want the pace to be too quick.
Mexico have already achieved their pre-tournament aim of advancing from the Group Phase. Gustavo Ayon, the team’s center and last year’s FIBA Americas Championship Most Valuable Player, has been as good as advertised, averaging 15.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
France v Croatia (Madrid)
It’s been several years since France and Croatia squared off in a basketball tournament. Les Bleus won both of those EuroBasket 2009 encounters in Poland and in the years since, they have been far more successful.
While both teams exited the 2010 FIBA World Championship in the Round of 16, France in a blowout loss to Turkey and Croatia in a thriller to Serbia, Vincent Collet’s French team in 2011 reached the EuroBasket Final in Lithuania. Next they played at the Olympics, making it to the Quarter-Finals.
Last year, France finished top of the podium at the EuroBasket in Slovenia, where Croatia came in fourth.
With Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Antoine Diot among the leading players in their side, France have emerged from a tough Group A in third place behind Spain, Brazil and ahead of Serbia.
Croatia, meanwhile, have made it to the Round of 16 as the second-place team from Group B, although their form has been patchy. Croatia edged the Philippines after overtime and prevailed against Argentina but lost to both Senegal and Greece before clinching a spot in the next phase with a big win over Puerto Rico.
Bojan Bogdanovic has been moving from strength to strength with Croatia's national side the past couple of years and is the focal point of their attack, although Croatia are deep and have others that can hurt France. Krunoslav Simon and Oliver Lafayette have shown an ability to hit the big shot and in tough situations while Dario Saric has continued to blossom as one of the best young players in European basketball with averages of 13.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Dominican Republic v Slovenia (Barcelona)
When Orlando Antigua took the reins of the Dominican Republic before the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, he did so knowing his country had not played at a FIBA World Championship since 1978.
Now, not only have Antigua and the Dominicans qualified for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, but advanced from a very difficult Group C to the Round of 16 where Slovenia will be the next opponents.
Without a doubt, Francisco Garcia has been their talisman. While the NBA sharpshooter has insisted that this is his last summer with the national team, Garcia has played so well that the Dominicans will be hoping that he changes his mind. The 2.00m (6-7) small forward averaged more than 20 points per game and carried the team through its difficult moments. He rested against the USA with an ankle injury but should be firing on all cylinders against Slovenia.
The Dominican team has no shortage of lightning-quick guards but where they have also been impressive at times has been the front court with center Eloy Vargas.
Slovenia made it to the last eight in 2010 before falling to hosts Turkey and want to at least do that well in 2014 at the Basketball World Cup.
Goran Dragic has lived up to the hype as one of the best guards in international basketball but the Slovenia low post game may be a concern heading into the knockout round.
It's been a year of transition for the national side following the international retirements of Bostjan Nachbar and Jaka Lakovic, the loss of Erazem Lorbek to injury and the unavailability of Gasper Vidmar and Mirza Begic.
Fourth quarters have been a bit concerning for coach Jure Zdovc, with his squad struggling against the press of Australia on opening night before winning that game and then scoring just two points over the last 10 minutes of Thursday’s loss to Lithuania. The game between the Dominicans and Slovenians could be too close to call.
Spain v Senegal (Madrid)
Spain have cut down every opponent in their path and though Senegal have had a tremendous Basketball World Cup with victories over Puerto Rico and Croatia, the African nation may be the next to fall hard against the tournament hosts.
Pau Gasol has never looked better with averages of 21.2 points and 5.6 rebounds, and his brother Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have been very effective, too.
Spain are loaded in the backcourt, which allows Juan Antonio Orenga to rotate players and keep them fresh.
Gorgui Dieng has had eye-popping numbers for Senegal, averaging more than 18 points and 11 rebounds per contest.
Add to the fact that Spain will play in front of a partisan crowd in Madrid and Senegal will have to cope with very difficult circumstances.
Spain were champions in 2006 and are hoping to be at the top of the podium again in 2014. If they win against the Senegalese, there will be three more games for them to win to realize their aim.
New Zealand v Lithuania (Barcelona)
No team understands the power of recovery better than New Zealand, who rebounded from an 0-3 start in Group C and won impressively against Ukraine and then Finland to advance to the Round of 16.
The Tall Blacks are not the biggest team in the competition, yet they crash the boards with an unrivaled ferocity that gives them a chance to beat most opponents. When considering they began the tournament with a strong performance for more than three quarters against Turkey before suffering a late collapse, they have actually had a better effort than their 2-3 record indicates.
Isaac Fotu has emerged as a key player for the Tall Blacks, coming off the bench to provide points, rebounds and tough defense. Unheralded players like three-point shooter Everard Bartlett and backup point guard Jarrod Kenny have given much-needed depth to Nenad Vucinic’s team.
Perhaps no player deserves plaudits in the New Zealand side like Mika Vukona, an undersized power forward who is constantly diving on the floor for loose balls and battling inside with bigger opponents.
Lithuania have a rich basketball tradition and it’s no surprise that despite the loss of point guard Mantas Kalnietis late in the preparations that they have been able to finish top of Group D.
Lithuania have size, speed, technique and plenty of confidence. Jonas Valanciunas remains a bright talent at center and there are plenty of hard workers like Martynas Pocius and Jonas Maciulis, players whose contributions are not always measured in the box scores.
New Zealand’s pre-game Haka has garnered most of the attention for the Tall Blacks but make no mistake, this is a team that fears no rival and Lithuania need to be focused from the opening tip.
Serbia v Greece (Madrid)
A clash with Serbia isn't much of a reward for a Greek team that went unbeaten to finish top of Group B, but that is the Round of 16 match-up that awaits the team coached by Fotis Katsikaris.
There should be no secrets between the sides since the majority of players compete in Europe. If there was a question mark about the interior game of the Greeks before the tournament with Giannis Bourousis, there should not be now. The center has averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds per game, and power forward Kostas Kaimakoglou has been averaging 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds.
The team's 19-year-old sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo has also provided plenty of evidence that he is going to be an effective player for the Greeks in the years to come.
Serbia might have avoided this difficult knockout game with a little luck but a late turnover against France led their one-point defeat in Group A and they also fell to Brazil after outscoring them 32-12 in the third quarter to move in front by four, only to fall away in the fourth quarter of an 81-73 defeat.
Nevertheless, Serbia will like their chances of moving on in the competition if they can execute their strategy and overcome the steady play of Greece's guards. Point guard Milos Teodosic is a player for the big occasion and it would not be surprising to see him come to the fore against Greece.
Turkey v Australia (Barcelona)
It's hard to know what to expect from Turkey night in and night out, but one thing is for certain: they can go a long way in the tournament with quality big men Omer Asik, Oguz Savas and Kerem Gonlum.
Each has come up big in the tournament and helped Turkey build momentum. When considering that Turkey also played smart and hard against the United States and gave the defending champions a good game in Group C, Ergin Ataman's team has a lot of cause for optimism.
In 2006, Turkey needed a wild card to take part in the FIBA World Championship in Japan and they reached the Quarter-Finals, so this is the second time that the country has done well in the tournament after being invited.
Aron Baynes will not back down against Turkey as Australia’s biggest threat inside while coach Andrej Lemanis also has the benefit of throwing plenty of experienced players like power forward/center David Andersen, small forward Joe Ingles and point guard Matthew Dellavedova at them. Turkey finished second in Group C and Australia third in Group D. This is a game that is too close to call.
Now Scola and his teammates are set to square off against their South American rivals again.
Brazil entered the competition as one of the teams that many believed could reach the podium because of the quality they possess all over the floor, especially on the interior with Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao.
The backcourt may be where the latest confrontation between the two giants is decided, with Marcelinho Huertas pulling the strings at point guard for Brazil and both Pablo Prigioni and Facundo Campazzo doing the same for Argentina.
Walter Herrmann has also been effective on his return to the national team of Argentina for the first time since 2006, and there is the savvy of Andres Nocioni for the Julio Lamas-coached squad.
Brazil will need points from Leandro Barbosa and Marquinhos Vieira, and Argentina from shooting guard Selem Safar and forward Marcos Mata. Get ready for another close one.
Brazil have plenty of incentive to win, but so do Argentina and in recent meetings in 2010 and the 2012 Olympics, they have been able to do just that.