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There will be no such thing as a lock when it comes to winning next year's FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments
VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - I remember it like the game was played yesterday, the focus and unyielding spirit of Croatia at the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Turin.
The home fans had piled into the arena, night after night, to watch Italy on what they envisioned as a triumphant march to Rio but Croatia (we can call them the Croatian sensations) wrote a different story.
Despite losing to Italy in a hotly-contest group game, the teams met again in the Final and Croatia this time, behind what seemed to be the super powers of Bojan Bogdanovic and Dario Saric, claimed a famous victory in overtime.
So here we are, more than three years on, and once again thinking about OQTs after the draw for all four was held at the House of Basketball on Wednesday in Mies, Switzerland.
Twenty-four teams ended up in their respective OQTs. Six will be in Victoria, Canada, and six more will be in Split, Croatia.
There will be six national teams in Kaunas, Lithuania, and six more in Belgrade, Serbia. My immediate thought was that Serbia, for the second time in a row, received the clearest path to the Olympics. They will be at home, just as in 2016, and will be in Group A with both New Zealand and the Dominican Republic, while in Group B will be Italy, Puerto Rico and Senegal.
But their path should not be as straightforward as last time, when they beat Puerto Rico twice, including a blowout in the Final, and also cruised past Angola and the Czech Republic. Here's what I think.
The opening day opponents on June 23, the Dominican Republic, possess a "we-will-take-on-the-world" mentality and will relish a game like this in Belgrade. They will play fast, uptempo and be physical, and if Serbia aren't ready, this could be a very awkward game. Remember the Dominican Republic advancing to the Round of 16 at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2014, and remember how they upset Germany in China this year?
Then there is New Zealand, a team that has given Serbia trouble over the years. In the Semi-Finals of the World Cup 17 years ago, the Tall Blacks led Yugoslavia 48-39 at half-time before falling, 89-78.
Two years later and the Kiwis defeated Serbia and Montenegro at the Olympics, 90-87, for their only victory at those Games. It contributed to the Balkan side missing out on the Quarter-Finals. Recently appointed Serbia coach Igor Kokoskov will remember that setback in Athens because he was an assistant coach of Serbia and Montenegro at the time.
Serbia beat Italy in a key game at the World Cup this year, and also in the Quarter-Finals at the last FIBA EuroBasket in Istanbul, so the Azzurri will be breathing fire if they meet again in the Semi-Finals of the OQT, or the Final. Senegal cannot be dismissed, especially at full strength with Gorgui Djeng. Remember their 77-75 win over Croatia at the World Cup five years ago? Puerto Rico should also have a better idea of how to take on Serbia after facing them twice in 2016 and in the Second Round of the World Cup this year.
This OQT may be harder than people think.
"We will not be naive and underestimate anyone," Kokoskov pledged after the draw.
Lithuania should like their chances of winning their OQT in Kaunas, but remember what happened at FIBA EuroBasket 2011, when Northern Macedonia upset them in the Quarter-Finals? They were favorites then, too. Take nothing for granted.
The Baltic side will be in Group A with Korea and Venezuela. Remember how testy that Lithuania showdown finished against 2012 OQT hosts Venezuela? Lithuania led decisively in that game but called a late timeout in a bid to improve their points difference and former Venezuela coach Eric Musselman confronted the coach of the Lithuanians, at the time, Kestutis Kemzura, after the game. Lithuania went on to clinch a spot in the London Olympics.
Lithuania will face Venezuela again, a team they defeated in Caracas seven years ago
In Group B will be a dangerous Poland, judging from their trip to the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup, Slovenia and Angola. Can you imagine the prospect of a Luka Doncic-led Slovenia taking on Lithuania in a Semi-Final or Final? That would be about as good a theater as it gets in international basketball.
Lithuania have not missed an Olympics since they began playing as an independent country in 1992 and the smart money would be on them to reach Tokyo, but they will have to overcome some adversity.
In Split, we just knew that Aco Petrovic would end up there with his Brazil team. Petrovic coached Croatia to the Turin OQT title over hosts Italy in 2016 and did his share of bragging, letting everyone know that he and his staff had out-coached Greece coach Fotis Katsikaris and Italy great Ettore Messina.
Now Petrovic will lead the Brazilians against Croatia and Tunisia in Group B with Germany, Russia and Mexico in Group A. Depending on results, Brazil could face Croatia in the Final.
My belief is that the Victoria OQT will be the most competitive, especially with Canada expected to put a star-studded team on the court. RJ Barrett, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have all given strong indications they will play. They will be in Group A with Greece and China, while in Group B will be Uruguay, Czech Republic and Turkey. I would envision Greece and Canada, the Czechs and Turkey advancing to the Semi-Finals.
Canada fought hard at the World Cup but were short on talent. They will have an abundance of it next year, although talent doesn't always win. Chemistry will also be crucial and that could cost Canada when you consider that the Greeks, Czech Republic and Turkey should have plenty.
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