RIO DE JANEIRO (Rio 2016 Olympic Games) - The time has arrived for one of the most exciting and competitive basketball events in the world, one that only comes around every four years.
The men's tournamentat the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro tips off on Saturday with Australia, China, France, Serbia, the United States and Venezuela battling it out in Group A and Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Lithuania, Nigeria and Spain squaring off in Group B.
1 - The Delfino surprise
Carlos Delfino was a forgotten man in international basketball, out of action since May 2013. The NBA player and Argentina superstar broke his foot while playing for the Houston Rockets in the play-offs and after a couple of surgeries looked to have played his last game for the national team. But Delfino joined the squad in its preparations for Rio and earned a spot on the Argentina roster. He then provided plenty of evidence in warm-up games that he'll be a major contributor for a side that has his fellow 2004 Olympic champions Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni.
If 2015 NBA champion Andrew Bogut gets a five-star rating for his Twitter contributions following his arrival in Rio, it remains to be seen what sort of impact he'll have on the Boomers' Olympic campaign. Bogut is trying to get back to his best following a knee injury suffered while playing for the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals in June. The veteran, traded to the Dallas Mavericks after the Warriors' 4-3 title series defeat to Cleveland, has been described by Australia teammate Matthew Dellavedova as the team's "anchor on defense" and his performances will be vital for a side that will not have to face nemesis USA in the Quarter-Finals if, that is, the Aussies make it that far.
Russia showed four years ago by capturing a bronze medal that a team can make it through a FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) and reach the podium at the Olympics. Will Croatia, Serbia or France follow their lead this month in Rio? Each side's players put a lot of energy into the build-up to their OQTs and did well in the competitions staged in early July. Each national team coach then gave his players a short break. Will they be in their rhythm when the Olympics begin? We'll have to wait and see.
Underwhelming may be the best way to describe Olympic host Brazil's performances the past several years but 2016 could prove to be different. At the Carioca Arena 1, the majority of fans will be firmly behind the team led by Argentina's 2004 Olympic gold-medal winning coach, Ruben Magnano. Marcelo Huertas and Raulzinho Neto will be two of the most exciting point guards in the tournament and center Nene and the 'Brazilian Blur', Leandro Barbosa, will be star attractions.
Chamberlain Oguchi's three-point shooting lifted Nigeria to one of their greatest moments, an AfroBasket title last year. He made 30 shots from beyond the arc, including 8 in a Semi-Final win over Senegal. If Oguchi has a confident stroke and does a lot of his trademark saluting, his celebration after made three-pointers, Nigeria will have a chance of moving into the Quarter-Finals.
The temptation is to say, "Nobody!" No team has beaten the USA since the 2006 FIBA Basketball World Cup, when Greece stunned Mike Krzyzewski's side 101-95 in the Semi-Finals. At the World Cup two years ago in Spain, the USA dominated every opponent. But Spain played the USA in the last two Olympic Finals and lost in close games on both occasions. Lithuania, their 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup blowout by the Americans aside, have historically given the United States very tough games.They nearly edged them in the Sydney 2000 Semi-Finals and did, in fact, knock them off in the 2004 Group Phase. Even in 2012, Lithuania gave the USA a hard game. Brazil came within a whisker of upsetting the USA in the Group Phase of the 2010 FIBA Basketball World Cup. The USA are big favorites, yet danger lurks at every corner.
Nestor 'Che' Garcia engineered one of the great tournament runs in FIBA Americas Championship history when he coached Venezuela to the title in Mexico City last year. Can he steer the big underdogs to an upset or two in Group A?
Croatia forward Dario Saric and Serbia center Nikola Jokic were the Most Valuable Players of the OQTs in Turin and Belgrade, respectively. China's 20-year-old center Zhou Qi made the All-Star Five at last year's FIBA Asia Championship. Vaidas Kariniauskas, 22, was a late addition to Lithuania's roster following an injury to Edgaras Ulanovas.
The MVP of the FIBA Basketball World Cup just won his first NBA title with Cleveland and is now going after Olympic gold. Irving is always worth the price of admission.
A Quarter-Final humiliation at the hands of France in Madrid two years ago for Spain prevented a potential World Cup title showdown for the tournament hosts with the USA. With EuroBasket 2015 MVP Pau Gasol leading the way, the Spaniards are hoping to not only make it back to a title showdown but this time to be a third-time lucky.