Qualifying play in the FIBA World Cup began in Beijing this week as all the countries were split into eight groups to see who would advance to the Quarterfinals. With Team USA being reduced to only two All-Stars (Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton), the field appears to be as open as it has been in over a decade, with many nations having gold medal goals.
The Americans were placed in Group E alongside Turkey, the Czech Republic and Japan. Turkey cruised to an easy victory over Japan in the first game, while Team USA did the same against the Czech Republic. Two days later Czechs prevailed in a battle of losing nations, but the real spotlight was on Team USA, who was taken to the brink by Turkey and eeked out a 93-92 overtime victory.
This result was surprising, as Turkey was not a team that was considered to be amongst the favorites for the gold medal. While their roster does feature two NBA players in Furkan Korkmanz (76ers) and Cedi Osman (Cavaliers), Enes Kanter (Celtics) is the nation’s top player but is not participating due to his status as an enemy-of-the-state (but that’s a story for another article).
Both teams blew opportunities to win the game on free throws. Turkey led the game 81-79 with seconds left only to foul Jayson Tatum on a three-point attempt; Tatum made two free throws to send the game to overtime. In the extra period, Turkey held a 92-91 lead in the waning seconds, forcing Team USA to commit in an intentional foul. Turkey missed both free throws but got the ball back again after forcing a turnover and Team USA committed another intentional foul. Once again Turkey clanked both free throws, and Khris Middleton was fouled on the ensuing fast break, making a pair of free throws and giving Team USA the win. A deflated Turkey would lose their next game to the Czech Republic, eliminating them from the World Cup. Team USA would defeat Japan and move on.
In Group D, a Serbia team that many consider the favorite to dethrone Team USA very much looked the part, cruising to three dominant victories to clinch their spot in the Quarterfinals. Led by All-Star big man Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), scoring wing Bogdan Bogdanovic (Kings), stretch forward Nemanja Bjelicia (Kings), and the league’s biggest player Boban Marjonivic, Serbia’s average margin of victory was a staggering 37 points. Their closest contest was a 15-point victory over a very talented Italian team featuring numerous NBA players as well.
In the second round they faced off against another team deemed likely to upset the Americans in Spain. Although longtime Spanish legend Pau Gasol is not playing in this tournament, Spain still boasts a roster featuring Marc Gasol (Raptors), Ricky Rubio (Suns), Willy Hernangomez (Hornets), Juan Hernangomez (Nuggets) and many other established overseas players such as Sergio Llull. Spain would ultimately come out on top in the contest 81-69, but don’t be surprised to see these two teams match up again.
Another popular team in this tournament is Greece, which features a roster of reigning MVP Giannis Antentokunmpo and his brother and that’s about it. Not to belittle the Greek National Team, but Giannis is the only vested NBA player on the roster and the team has had little success historically. Without the spacing he enjoys on the Bucks, teams have been able to pack the paint and were able to slow down the Greek Freak. After eeking out of their group in the first round with a 2-1 record, Greece was defeated in the second round by Team USA 69-53.
Some other notable teams who are still without losses include Argentina who notably defeated Team USA en route to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, although Manu Ginoboli is now retired. Australia remains undefeated even without the services of Ben Simmons thanks to guys like Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova (Cavs), Aron Baynes (Suns) and Joe Ingles (Jazz). The last of the unbeatens is France led by Rudy Gobert (Jazz), Nicolas Batum (Hornets), Evan Fournier (Magic) and Frank Ntilikina (Knicks).
This year’s field is wide open, and judging from the first two rounds of play, the Quarterfinals should have much more excitement in store.