Posted Sep 2 2010 7:24PM
ISTANBUL -- Now is when things really get interesting.
Pool play at the 2010 FIBA World Championship wrapped up on Thursday, with 16 of the 24 teams in advancing to the elimination rounds that begin Saturday at the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul. Thanks to some tough round-of-16 matchups, at least two medal contenders will be going home early.
Spain (3-2) and Greece (3-2), two teams that were considered favorites to win gold before the tournament began, will face off in a must-watch round-of-16 matchup on Saturday. Both had bumpy roads through pool play, but thanks to Thursday's results (including a possible tank job by Greece against Russia), they each avoided a possible meeting with the United States (5-0) in the quarterfinals. Still, they couldn't avoid each other.
The two best teams from South America will face each other Tuesday. Either Brazil (3-2), which came close to handing the U.S. its only loss, or Argentina (4-1), which won its first four games before losing to Serbia by two points on Thursday, will fail to make the quarterfinals.
So thanks to Thursday's results, the USA's path to the semifinals is a little easier than it looked like it would be 24 hours ago. The Americans will face Angola (2-3) in the round of 16 on Monday and if they win that game, they'll play the winner of Russia (4-1) and New Zealand (3-2), rather than the Spain-Greece winner.
Russia has been one the surprises of the tournament, and also one of the toughest defensive teams, allowing its opponents to shoot just 42 percent against its zone. Though they're playing without Andrei Kirilenko, the Russians would pose a challenge for the U.S. If the Americans can get to the semifinals, an even tougher challenge -- Argentina, Brazil or Lithuania -- would await.
Before succumbing to a more talented team in the second half, Lithuania gave the Americans a tough lesson in FIBA play two weeks ago in Madrid. They brought a young and somewhat inexperienced team to Turkey, but they went undefeated in Group D with a huge comeback victory against Spain and gave France its first loss.
France won its first three games (including a shocker over Spain on opening night), but dropped two straight and, thanks to a three-way tie, finished fourth in its group. That earned it a date with Turkey, the third unbeaten team, in the round of 16.
Led by Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova and Suns forward Hedo Turkoglu, the hosts got an emotional win over Greece on Tuesday and had just one close game in Group C. They will have the home crowd behind them and should definitely be considered a favorite to medal after their run through their group. They had the third-best point differential (+108) in pool play, behind the U.S. (+124) and Serbia (+109).
Serbia suffered a shocking defeat to Germany (who did not qualify for the round of 16) on the second day of the tournament, but otherwise was not affected by the early suspensions of Nenad Krstic and Milos Teodosic. They'll face rivals Croatia (2-3) on Saturday, with the winner facing the winner of Spain and Greece in the quarterfinals.
The United States got through Group B without a blemish on their record, but they looked somewhat vulnerable along the way, with key issues to address. Defensively, they must communicate better when defending the pick-and-roll. Offensively, they must cut down on turnovers and avoid stagnant sets.
They're hoping that a couple of days of practice before they play Angola on Monday will get them better prepared for elimination play.
As it played out, the two halves of the bracket are fairly balanced. The top half has Serbia, Spain, Greece and Turkey. The bottom half has the U.S., Lithuania, Argentina and Brazil. The three medal winners will likely come from that group of eight teams.
The World Championship has already provided some great basketball, and it only gets better from here. With pool play over, there's no more gamesmanship or holding back.
Was Spain playing possum or are the defending world champions just not that good? Are the Americans as vulnerable as they seemed against Brazil, or were they just worn down from a stretch of six games in 10 days? Can Turkey ride its home crowd to a medal?
We'll find out in the next 10 days.
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