NEWCASTLE (Paul Nilsen's Women's Basketball Worldwide) - After breaking down Groups A and B of the 2016 FIBA U17 Women's World Championship last week, it’s now time to swoop on Groups C and D.
Any group which contains the three-time winners of the event in the USA will always attract huge interest and with arguably the two best European teams also included alongside underdogs Korea, it looks very interesting indeed.
After the rarest of failures when falling to a historic first-ever loss last year at the FIBA Americas U16 Women's Championship, there is only one way to make amends and that is to continue their dominance of this tournament with a fourth straight podium topping triumph. Having put their faith in play-caller Dori Oldaker to make up for falling short in 2015, it will be fascinating to see who is selected on the final roster.
All of those who were in the line-up for that fateful tournament in Puebla are also given the opportunity to redeem themselves and perhaps the desire to put things right will be the additional motivational factor that allows USA to keep their crown. Certainly they will be favourites, but face a stiff early group phase test against two hugely talented and organised European opponents.
Picking out a star to watch at this stage for USA looks almost impossible as with some 35 athletes on contention, anything could happen, so watch this space. Certainly whoever is selected, USA will have to stand up in the paint against the physical Italians.
It was something of a surprise when Richard Fousek led Czech Republic to their maiden FIBA U16 European Championship Women title last year and they will have to be respected. Not least because they play with such a constant level and seem able to grow into tournament play.
Veronika Sipova led the team in points and rebounds last year and if she is back on board, she will be tough to handle as she is a real beast on the offensive glass. However Czech Republic are really about the team approach and have players to make the important shot right down the roster.
They were fourth in this competition two years ago on home soil in Pilsen and could feel able to match that run again, although so much is likely to hinge on their ability to see off Italy – a team they were beaten by early in Matosinhos last year, but then overturned in the all-important Semi-Finals.
There was a general consensus Italy could, and probably should, have finished top of the pile at the 2015 FIBA U16 European Championshop Women. After all, they only lost once in nine games, but regrettably for them it was that Semi-Final encounter with the Czech team.
They play high tempo and aggressive defense but can also excel in the half-court if they are able to rely once again on the twin towers under the hoops of Sara Madera and Lorela Cubaj. Both are powerful players and will relish the battle in this group - and there may even be scope to rotate a deep frontcourt if the 1.90m Valeria Trucco returns.
Head coach Giovanni Lucchesi is a shrewd operator and Italy could make a serious bid at this tournament, but much will hinge on their shooters and guards adding productivity from long-range. Their match-up with Czech Republic will be a blockbuster.
After missing the inaugural tournament in 2010, Korea are now ready to line-up at their third consecutive edition. However they would probably be well served to brace themselves for what could be the biggest test they've ever had. Certainly any hopes of a first Quarter-Final slot look remote after being handed a very difficult group.
Past events have seen them rely heavily on the phenomenal Ji Su Park and she won't be around this time to carry a major load on her shoulders. Meanwhile third place at the 2015 FIBA Asia U16 Women's Championship hardly inspired confidence, especially as Korea were well beaten by finalists Japan and eventual champions, China.
If you are only going to follow one particular group then this might just be the one to go for as absolutely anything could happen!
If their previous record is anything to go by and their wider reputation across all levels of the women's game is taken into account, then Spain should be one of the front-runners. Only it isn't that straightforward, since this group of players fluffed their lines last year in a big way at the 2015 FIBA U16 European Championship Women.
For only the second time in 12 years, they failed to reach the podium and were subjected to a humbling 20-point Semi-Final loss in a dreadful derby performance against Portugal, prior to being dismantled in the Third-Place Game against Italy.
Some mitigation was the loss of their key player in Iris Junio who was sidelined with a serious injury. She showcased her abilities at the 2014 FIBA U17 Women's World Championship, but has again been knocked down by some rotten luck.
It leaves a big question for head coach Victor Lapena as he tries to manage expectations - something of a rarity for a Spanish team in any tournament. Without a true go-to player at this stage, it will have to be the team ethic that comes through in pursuit of success.
Heading into last year's FIBA U16 European Championship Women as hosts, Portugal didn't just surpass expectations, they smashed them beyond comprehension. They got to a first ever Semi-Final at a youth event, a first Final, a first global tournament ticket and racked up that historic win against Spain for added sweetness. They punched above their weight and were undoubtedly carried by an outstanding home crowd of 2,000-4,000 every single night they played.
Whether they can now replicate this in is the big question and the match-up with Spain is going to be as tasty as tasty gets! They have a couple of great games in store as the one against Brazil could also be highly entertaining. Hopefully they can bank on last year’s MVP Ana Ramos to orchestrate the plays and Beatriz Jordao is only ever seconds away from serving up a blocked shot for the highlights reel.
They came so close to taking the FIBA Americas U16 Women's Championship last year but it was their Semi-Final success against the USA which made the entire women's basketball world sit up and take notice. They have the capacity to win or lose against Spain and Portugal, and in Izabella Leite they have one of the probable stars of the tournament as she is a scoring machine.
Brazil have never reached the Quarter-Finals and this could be their best chance yet to do so, but they will have to be at their best to get past their group rivals. Certainly a good showing would be even more poignant in their Olympic host year.
If there is one thing to be said about Mali, it's that they do love to create a surprise. Having lost 12 games across almost two whole editions of the FIBA U17 Women's World Championship, they went on to accrue a maiden success - ironically against Brazil, who will want to erase that memory of defeat in Amsterdam back in 2012. Last time around in Klatovy, Mali caused a seismic scale shock as they beat European opposition in the shape of Italy.
So while underdogs once again, their Group D rivals should underestimate them at their absolute peril because they do have the capacity to compete and win games at this level. They also went unbeaten in Madagascar last year, so have momentum and confidence behind them.