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The one key question each Olympic men's team must answer
TOKYO (Japan) - It is our job to ask the questions. This time around, we tried giving the answers, too. Only 12 teams get to play in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the ones who figure out the answers themselves get to celebrate on the final day of competition.
So, what's on each of these teams' mind as they get closer to tip-off in the Saitama Super Arena?
Can Iran end a 73-year-long drought?
In a group with the USA, France and Czech Republic, Iran aren't exactly the favorites to advance. That doesn't mean they are going on a field trip to Japan this summer, because they have an itch that's been there since 1948...and now seems the right time to scratch it.
Iran defeated Ireland 49-22 in the preliminary round in London 73 years ago. Technically, that's their only win on the court, ever, because the other W came as a result of Hungary forfeiting their battle for 13th place. Seems as though we will get the answer to this one as soon as possible - Iran play the Czech Republic in the opening game of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Do Les Bleus really want to show their hand on the opening day?
Speaking of Game day 1 action, France and the USA are set to play the rematch of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Quarter-Finals. Les Bleus won that affair to shock the world, but in reality, that's all they had to do. It was a win-or-go-home kind of environment, and they didn't feel like going home.
Now, the situation is different. Will Vincent Collet tell his men to play full strength against the USA in the very first game in Japan? It's hard to see that happening. Because tournament experience tells us it's next to impossible to beat the NBA stars TWICE in the same event, and fans all over the world expect both the US and France in the medal hunt anyway.
Our guess? France will go out relaxed on the first gameday. If a win happens, it happens. If not, they will save a secret or two for a potential matchup in the Semi-Finals, the Final or the Bronze Medal Game.
Was the alarm clock loud enough for the USA?
Actually, alarm clocks. Plural. Starting from the one that rang in this Saitama Super Arena back in 2006, when Greece upset LeBron James and the rest of the crew at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Then, it was back to business as usual, with the USA winning back-to-back gold medals at the World Cup, and going back-to-back-to-back in the Olympics afterwards.
All that winning and celebrating must have made them exhausted, because they fell asleep again. They were out of the medal battles in China in 2019 and they lost two straight exhibition games in a matter of days. This is certainly in contrast to the 54-2 they went in similar games over the past 19 years.
It seems like they are waking up again. At least they lost the games that "don't count," oversleeping the alarm clock and realizing it was Sunday anyway. But oversleeping two such alarms in Tokyo would be disastrous, like sleeping in on a day when the owners were firing people all over the place.
Czech Republic, an underdog?
The fact that basketball is such a big sport in most of Europe, the fact that countries such as Slovenia, Spain, France, Russia, Greece, Lithuania, Serbia, Italy, Croatia, Germany all got on podium at FIBA EuroBasket events since 1990, all of that pushes Czech Republic into a lower tier when you talk about the juggernauts of the Old Continent.
However, Czech Republic enjoy the underdog role. They enjoyed it in 2015, as they blew out Croatia in the Round of 16. They enjoyed it in 2019, when they finished 6th at the World Cup, ahead of the USA (!); and they enjoyed it again in 2021, defeating heavily favored Canada and Greece to make history and qualify for the Olympics.
They are among the 12 best teams in the world - again. They are ranked 12th in the FIBA World Ranking presented by Nike. Time to get rid of the underdog stigma and embrace the fact you belong here.
Will Australia answer the Moneyball question?
Moneyball is an awesome movie. It had a bunch of really good quotes, but the best one is probably the one about winning the last game of the season. "If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a [expletive]."
The Boomers can relate. The only time they won the last game of the (summer) season was back in 2004, at the Olympics, with current coach Brian Goorjian in charge, and even that win in the last game was in the battle for 9th spot in Athens.
They lost in the Round of 16 of the World Cups in 2006, 2010 and 2014. They lost in the Quarter-Finals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. And even when they made it over that hurdle, the last two big events also ended with painful defeats, finishing fourth in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
It's time, Australia. Listen to Brad Pitt, win that last game of the series for once and change the game.
Can Germany do it without NBA stars?
When you look at the German squad, it's clear that coach Henrik Rodl has 12 really good role players at his disposal. That is good news, but also not the best news ever. Because in events like these, you need to have that one star to guide you to glory.
Dennis Schroder, Daniel Theis and Maxi Kleber are all out for the summer. While Maodo Lo, Johannes Voigtmann and Moritz Wagner successfully took their roles, the question remains the same - is it still the same level as the aforementioned trio?
There's good news, though. This version of Germany is a team-first version. They won not one, not two, not three, but four close games, coming up big in the fourth quarters at the FIBA OQT in Split, Croatia. Maybe you don't need the stars if you have this kind of winning mentality as a team.
Was changing the roster a good idea for Italy?
Brotherhood. Family. All for one, one for all. These are the usual feelings one gets from being a part of a team, any team, especially if that team wins something somewhere, no matter how big or small the size of the prize is.
Italy won. They upset Serbia. In Belgrade, of all the places. You can only imagine what kind of bonds were built over those ten days together, in the same hotel, in the same bus, in the same arena. Breaking that is a risky move, but coach Meo Sacchetti knows how important it is to have a superstar at the Olympics.
Awudu Abass was cut from the team after Belgrade, Danilo Gallinari is now in, immediately after his sublime season with the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA. Knowing what kind of a person Danilo is, there is no doubt he will fit right in. And if he can get to 20 points per game, then you have the answer to the key question right in front of you.
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Where does the experience come from for Nigeria?
Having a young team in a big event is huge for the future of basketball in your country. And all of the Nigerian youngsters are like prototypes for modern basketball: fast, athletic, vertical, elite on defense, good shooters on offense, you name it. It's not just a coincidence that so many NBA players are from Nigeria or have Nigerian roots.
But, being young can also be painful for a team in a big event like the Olympics. For the past 15 years, Ike Diogu and Al Farouq Aminu were always the voices of the locker room. Literally, the two of them never stop talking, and their veteran leadership was something that the younger guys could feast upon.
Who brings the experience to this squad? Well, that's up to coach Mike Brown. One of the best in the business, with almost 25 years in various coaching roles in the NBA. His know-how and the youth on the floor sounds like a perfect match for Nigeria.
Are there enough balls for Argentina?
Facundo Campazzo loves having the ball in his hands. Nicolas Laprovittola loves having the ball in his hands. Luca Vildoza loves having the ball in his hands. Nico Brussino loves having the ball in his hands. Leandro Bolmaro. Gabriel Deck. Luis Scola.
So, how on earth are all of them going to play together? Luckily for Argentina, distributing the roles and making sure the ball goes around is something that coach Sergio Hernandez does at the highest of levels. In fact, his teams that picked up all those medals over the last 15 years were loaded with ballhandlers who knew how to find open teammates.
Yes, there will be enough balls for all Argentine players to do their thing. It should be enough to send them to the Quarter-Finals, and that's the point where having a lot of ballhandlers becomes a luxury, not a problem.
Is the curse of the hosts a real thing?
Brazil dropped out in Group Stage in 2016. Great Britain dropped out in Group Stage in 2012. China lost in the Quarter-Finals in 2008. Greece lost in the Quarter-Finals in 2004. Australia lost in the Semi-Finals in 2000. At the Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, all four hosts lost out and own't be playing here in Tokyo.
In fact, other than the USA twice and the Soviet Union once, the hosts of the Olympics never get to climb the podium. There have been numerous fourth-place finishes, but a medal seems like a long shot when you're hosting this one.
Japan have a mountain to climb just to reach the elimination phase, but even that is more than the last two hosts did. There must be a curse going around.
Last chance to see Spain at the top step of the podium?
It's crazy that a nation set its standards so high that not winning the gold at the Olympics could be the most negative result of the millennium. But that's Spain for you.
The golden generation that took over at the turn of the century is almost gone. Pau Gasol is still there to keep the nation singing even at 41 years of age, and it feels like Pau deserves an ending while standing on the top step of the podium.
Gasol was always there for Spain, doing his thing in the middle. But with Sergio Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio and Victor Claver also in their 30s, Tokyo could be that last run of a once-in-a-lifetime generation of basketball players for Spain. They already love the memory of Saitama from 2006. Maybe they get to celebrate it even more in 2021.
Can Mike Tobey stay out of foul trouble for Slovenia?
Anthony Randolph was huge for Slovenia at FIBA EuroBasket 2017. Jordan Morgan was as efficient in the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers. But Mike Tobey seems like the perfect naturalized player to run alongside Luka Doncic.
Tobey is a good enough shooter to pop back to the three-point line, and he is a good enough flyer to finish off alley-oops on the roll. His defense allows coach Aleksander Sekulic to play 1v1 against dominant big guys on the other end, but the Final of the FIBA OQT in Kaunas showed a vulnerable side to Tobey's game.
Fighting Jonas Valanciunas and Domantas Sabonis got him into foul trouble. Slovenia survived. Tobey is a smart guy who can adjust when up to three personals, but get this - he has to fight Rui Hachimura, two Gasols, Willy Hernangomez and Luis Scola, among others, just in the Group Phase. Mike, or Miha, staying safe will be key for the FIBA EuroBasket champs to reach glory at the global level, too.