Posted Aug 27 2010 10:43AM
ISTANBUL -- The 12 players who won Olympic gold in 2008 are not here. Neither are Andrew Bogut, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Mehmet Okur, Tony Parker and Yao Ming.
But when a team is standing atop the medal stand on Sept. 12 with gold medals around its necks and the sound of its national anthem in its ears, few will care about who wasn't here.
Even with all the notable absences, the 2010 FIBA World Championship, which begins Saturday in four locations in Turkey, promises to bring out the best basketball of the summer. The quality of international players is only getting better. And with 24 teams participating, the quality goes much deeper than in the 12-team Olympic competition two years ago.
The single-elimination tournament is also four rounds long instead of three, adding to the drama. And with no clear cut favorite, the medal rounds should be very competitive.
"I think there are more teams that have a chance to win gold or get in the top three than in previous years," Slovenia's Bostjan Nachbar said Friday. "There are probably between six and eight teams that have a chance to play in the finals."
The United States is without Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the 2008 team. They're small, young and very green, with only three players with senior-level FIBA experience. But they're still the fastest and most athletic team in the world, and they will try to use those attributes to their advantage.
Though they struggled at times, the U.S. went 5-0 in exhibition games, including wins over two other favorites to win gold here, Spain and Greece.
Spain is without Gasol and Jose Calderon, who injured his hamstring in last weekend's exhibition with the U.S. But the Spaniards still have most of the roster that put a scare into the U.S. in the gold medal game two years ago, including some quality bigs that can take advantage of the Americans' lack of size.
Greece is without veteran point guard Theo Papoloukas, but the Greeks still have the playmakers and skilled bigs to burn teams with their pick-and-roll execution, like they did to the U.S. four years ago in the semifinals.
The U.S. knows it didn't see the best of Spain and Greece in those exhibition matchups. There's no denying that the U.S. team has less offensive talent than it had in 2006 and 2008. With four do-or-die games and with each of those games only 40 minutes long, the margin for error is slim.
"Having been here before, we're kind of ready for different obstacles," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said Thursday. "I think we learned a little bit in Japan in '06. You can't lose your focus, not for a heartbeat."
Colangelo knows that chemistry, which his team hasn't had much time to develop, will be critical. It's chemistry and teamwork that makes the best international teams as good as they are.
The U.S. is arguably in the toughest pool play group, with three other quality teams: Brazil, Croatia and Slovenia. Group C is also strong, with Greece, Russia, Puerto Rico and the hosts, Turkey. Spain's Group D is the weakest. And if both Spain and the U.S. win their groups, they would be on the same side of the 16-team, single-elimination bracket, meaning one of them would not make the final.
Argentina headlines a tough Group A, which also features Australia and Serbia. But the Argentines took a hit when they learned Thursday that Andres Nocioni (ankle) would not be able to participate.
There is more at stake in the next 2 ½ weeks than one team earning the rightful, once-in-four-years title of world champions. The winner also receives an automatic bid to the 2012 Olympics in London, which the U.S. did not earn with their victory in Beijing two years ago.
If the U.S. does not win the World Championship, it would have two other ways to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. The first chance would come at next year's FIBA Americas tournament in Argentina. But with the NBA's collective bargaining agreement expiring next summer, it's very possible that NBA players would not be available to represent the U.S.
If the team the U.S. sends to Argentina doesn't finish in the top two, then they would have to compete in a play-in tournament before the Olympics begin. That's looking a little far ahead, but it's a plausible scenario if the U.S. isn't the team standing atop the medal stand on Sept. 12.
The U.S. has a chance to take care of business over the next 16 days in Istanbul, but as Colangelo said, the U.S. team can't lose its focus. Once the Americans reach the medal rounds, it takes just one hiccup to get knocked out.
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