FIBA World Cup Preview

Calderon and Prigioni represent their countries and the Knicks
by Charlie Widdoes

Basketball is back! Summer League is in the rearview mirror and training camp is a month away, but for the next 16 days, many of the best players in the world will be playing in games that count. For this, we rejoice.

After a few weeks of practice and some difficult roster decisions, team USA begins defense of its 2010 Naismith Trophy -- the prize awarded to the winner of the World Cup tournament -- on Saturday. Two Knicks point guards (Jose Calderon and Pablo Prigioni) also figure to be in the mix at the end as they lead Spain and Argentina, respectively, in their own title pursuits.

Hoops junkies everywhere are in for a treat, as NBA and international stars start gearing up for the season by competing on the world stage for their countries. Let's examine some of the biggest storylines to follow...

USA the favorites?

A younger group to begin with, Coach Mike Krzyzewski's squad has already had to overcome two significant losses -- first Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury, then reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant withdrew from the team in order to rest up for the upcoming season. Without two of the best all-around players in the world, Team USA not only had to adjust its roster, but rethink its entire approach. Durant and George were instrumental because of their length -- both were slated to log playing time at power forward -- and ability to create offense.

After they went down, Coach K and his staff elected to bolster its bench with more big men, including three centers (DeMarcus Cousins, KAndre Drummond and Mason Plumlee), in addition to two offensive-minded wings who may not have been in the original plans: Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan.

That means budding superstar Anthony Davis will shoulder an even greater share of the load, as he anchors the paint on both ends of the floor. He'll be flanked with the likes like Steph Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson, whose shooting and ball pressure could be keys to the US hopes of title defense. The X-factor, as he'll be for the third straight season for the Chicago Bulls, will be Derrick Rose. He'll attempt to put injuries behind him during a rigorous playing schedule, of which he's almost certain to miss some in favor of rest. His availability could be the difference between a title and underdog status against Calderon's Spain.

Team USA will open Group C play on Saturday at 3:30 PM EST against Finland. The Dominican Republic -- which the US dismantled last week at Madison Square Garden -- and Turkey stand out as the biggest upset threats in the opening round.

You can view the complete World Cup schedule here

Spain's home court advantage

As the host team, Calderon's Spain poses the biggest threat to Team USA. Not only are they playing in their own country, but their experience together and imposing front line make them tough to beat in any setting. 

Calderon and Ricky Rubio make up the perfect backcourt for a squad that boasts both Marc and Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka; Calderon's deadly long-range shooting (over 41 percent for his NBA career) and supreme ball control (4th in NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio last season) combined with Rubio's special passing instincts make it difficult for opponents to force turnovers, which allows Spain to execute its high-low offense in the half court. No doubt, Coach K had this in mind when he opted to take Cousins AND Plumlee instead of, say, Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons.

France and Brazil figure to pose the biggest challenge in Group B.

Argentina: Darkhorse?

While Team USA and Spain are considered no-doubt contenders, Argentina cannot be discounted. Spurs star Manu Ginobili is not on the team, but Prigioni leads a group with veteran experience (including Luis Scola and former NBA player Andres Nocioni) that hopes its continuity can make up for a lack of depth. They'll have a good shot to make it out of Group B, which includes Puerto Rico and Croatia as the primary competitors.