Olympics 2012 Preview
Twelve countries battle for the Gold medal in London.
by Ben Taylor / @benitaylor
The 2012 Olympic Games are here. After months of hype (years if you live in the UK), the talk is over and the sport finally begins. By the time the Games are brought to a close at the Olympic Stadium in East London on August 12, we’ll have seen 10,960 athletes from 204 countries compete to win the most prestigious prize in sports—an Olympic Gold medal.
While any sports fan worth their salt will be looking forward to watching Bolt, Phelps and Co. do their thing, there’s no denying that for hoops heads, there’s one particular Gold medal that holds the most excitement: the one hanging around the necks of the winners of the Men’s Basketball tournament.
Now, you guys read SLAMonline, which means you know your basketball—especially when it comes to Team USA. But, even the biggest fan can be forgiven for not knowing the ins and outs of the guys that the red, white and blue will go toe-to-toe with in London, so here’s your cheat sheet on the best of the rest.
Before we get into the teams, a quick reminder of how the competition actually works. The 12 qualified teams are split into two groups—imaginatively named Group A and Group B. Each team plays every team in their group once, with the four highest ranked teams (based on win percentage) progressing to the quarter finals.
The quarter final seedings work in a similar format to the NBA Playoffs—Group A’s best team plays Group B’s fourth best, and vice versa. From this point on, it is straight knockout, with winners progressing to the semi-finals, and then the final—to compete for the gold medal.
After the last two weeks of pre-Olympic warm-up games, in which Team USA dominated every team they faced, the big question is whether any one of the 11 other teams in the competition has what it takes to beat the USA and their stacked roster.
The defending Gold medalists head Group A, in which they will face France (July 29, 9:30 a.m. EST), Tunisia (July 31, 5:15 p.m. EST), Nigeria (August 2, 5:15 p.m.), Lithuania (August 4, 9:30 a.m. EST), and Argentina (August 6, 5:15 p.m. EST).
Of those teams, France and Argentina pose the greatest threat.
Tony Parker’s France hasn’t had the ideal preparation for the Olympics. TP famously got caught up in the Chris Brown/Drake drama, and will be forced to play wearing protective goggles, while his team was inconsistent in their warm-up games, beating Brazil and Great Britain, but losing to Spain and Australia to finish with a 6-4 record.
Argentina gave the US team the toughest test of their pre-Olympic warmup, thanks, in part, to a typically impressive Manu Ginobli performance. In the end, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul put on a late run to keep the Argentines at bay, but Coach K will have noted that at times their opponents picked apart the US defense with ease.
Lithuania has tailed off after impressing at the FIBA World Championships two years ago, finishing a disappointing fifth place at last year’s Eurobasket. Their roster features some stand-out Euroleague players, and newly signed Toronto Raptor, 20-year-old Jonas Valanciunas. If they can get it together, they could make a run to the Quarter Finals.
Few expected Nigeria to earn a spot at the Olympics, but the style in which they knocked off Greece and Lithuania at the FIBA Qualifying Tournament earned them a trip to London. They could pull off another shock or two in Group A, but progressing to the next stage should be a step too far.
Tunisia will make its Olympic debut in London, having won the FIBA African Championships. Barring a miracle, that’s probably as good as it gets for this team.
With a roster featuring Serge Ibaka, the Gasol brothers, Rudy Fernandez, Victor Claver and Jose Calderon, it’s no surprise that Spain is the team most people are picking to face the USA in the gold medal match on August 12. Pau isn’t the player he used to be, and the European Champions will miss the creativity of Ricky Rubio, but with Ibaka stepping up on both ends of the floor, it’d be a huge shock not to see them in the final.
Brazil gave the US a tough test in the warm-up game in Washington, DC, jumping to an early lead and making the Americans work hard to get back in the game. With Nene and Tiago Splitter up front, and Leandro Barbosa running the point, the Brazilians will give Spain the most trouble of all of the Group B teams, and could make a run to the semi-finals.
Australia comes into the Olympics fresh off a great win over France in their final warm-up game. They are without Golden State’s Andrew Bogut, but with Patty Mills and some Euroleague talent—including Barcelona stud Joey Ingles—the Aussies will be hoping to make the quarter finals at least.
Andrei Kirilenko’s Russia was forced to go through the FIBA Qualifying Tournament, but having made it to London, they will prove a tough match-up for anyone in the competition. AK47 leads an impressive front court, featuring Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov on a Russian side that breezed through their warm-up games.
Host Great Britain hasn’t featured in the basketball event at the Olympics since the last London Games, way back in 1948. Hopes are high that this team, led by Luol Deng, the Blazers’ Joel Freeland, and former Raptor Pops Mensah-Bonsu, can help kick-start a new interest in hoops here in the UK. With no recognized point guard, and high quality opposition, making it out of the group stage would be a huge achievement for GB.
In the post-Yao era, China has struggled to make waves in international ball. Mavericks big Yi Jianlian is their leader and stand-out player, but the lack of support for him should see China go home after round one.
I’ve talked about the teams, so the only thing left for me to do is pick the medal winners, and I can’t look past the USA for the Gold, beating Spain in the final. For the Bronze medal game, I’m picking Brazil to face Argentina, with Brazil taking the medal.
PLAYER OF THE TOURNAMENT
Kevin Durant seems on a mission to finish this year on a high, and his style of play is perfect for international ball—as he showed at the World Championships in 2010. He could be set to light up the competition in London, and end up with a Gold medal around his neck.
That’s enough from me, time to hear what you guys think. Hit me in the comments, and check back through the Olympics for more coverage from London.