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Road to London: USA Basketball's task tougher than expected

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Eric Rosales, CTVOlympics.ca Staff
5/1/2012 4:00:14 PM
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There is only one certainty in the very uncertain assignment of breaking down the men's basketball tournament at the London 2012 Olympic Games. If the Americans are to repeat as gold medal winners, they will have earned it.

While the field still needs to be filled out thanks to the last-chance play-in tournament set for July in Venezuela; the United States find themselves in the more difficult of the two groups.

Group A: Argentina, France, Tunisia, United States (plus two remaining qualifiers to be determined)

Group B: Australia, Brazil, China, Great Britain, Spain (plus one remaining qualifier to be determined)

If you're scoring at home, USA Basketball will have to contend with the powerhouse Argentinian squad.  A team led by San Antonio Spurs' standout Manu Ginobili and Houston Rockets' forward Luis Scola. Always among the international elite, Argentina won gold at Athens 2004 and bronze at Beijing 2008.

An influx of youth and talent from the likes of Joakim Noah and Nicolas Batum can only help a strengthened French roster, led by perennial Spurs' All-Star Tony Parker. France won the silver medal at Sydney 2000.

Before assuming that Tunisia will be a rollover win, remember that this is the team that stayed within four points of the Americans in the third quarter at last year's World Championships, before the Americans closed out strong, turning the game into a 92-57 demolition.

It should be mentioned that Group A will take the top two finishers in the qualifier, while Group B will take the third place squad. These will be solid, if not spectacular teams that will be far from cannon fodder to fill out the tournament bracket.

Of the teams entered into the Qualifying tournament, expect Lithuania, Russia and Greece to make their way into the Olympics proper. Greece, it should be noted, is the last team to beat the USA squad, way back in Athens 2004.

Unlike soccer's World Cup, the Olympic round robin doesn't come close to resembling a 'group of death'.

Each team will play every member in its group once in the preliminary round, and the top four teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinal. Only a major catastrophe could see the Americans on the outside looking in at this point.

The groups will begin to crossover in quarter final play, with the top team in each group playing the fourth place team in the opposite group, and so on down the line in a single elimination format, which will eventually lead to both a bronze medal and championship game.

The timing of the group announcements – made Monday in Rio de Janiero – comes on the heels of the United States suffering yet another dent to a roster that, on paper at least, was considered by some to be as talented as the 1992 Barcelona squad that came to be known as the 'Dream Team'.

The latest to fall was Chicago Bulls point guard and reigning NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who suffered a torn ACL in the first game of the playoffs for the Bulls against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Rose joins an increasingly crowded sideline of Americans no longer available for London – a list that also includes big men Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge, and veteran point guard Chauncey Billups.

There is still plenty of top-tier help available, players that would be starters and centrepieces for many other nations; however there should be some cause for concern for USA Basketball head honcho Jerry Coalngelo as the talent pool thins.

Prior to the start of the Olympic tournament, NBA players will have subjected their bodies to a compacted 66-game schedule, the likes of which they have not seen since high school. The playoffs are just two games into the first round, and many of USA's top stars are expected to make deep runs into the postseason.

A completely realistic scenario could pit the Heat and Thunder in the NBA Finals. That would mean that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook could have as little as two weeks to recover before USA training camp opens.

Other nations are also facing similar dilemmas.

Spain, who won silver in Beijing, will already be without point guard Ricky Rubio (torn ACL) and small forward Rudy Fernandez (back).

Australia was dealt a blow when centre Andrew Bogut was ruled out with injuries to his hand and elbow. In addition, rookie sensation Kyrie Irving passed on the Aussies, whom he was eligible to play for due to his dual citizenship, for a future chance to play for the USA.

Spain's frontcourt is currently on full display. The Gasol brothers, Marc with the Grizzlies and Pau with the Lakers, are hauling big and important minutes, and are expected to take their teams deep into the playoffs. Meanwhile Serge Ibaka plays alongside Durant and Westbrook in Oklahoma City.

Parker and Ginobili certainly have their sights on a deep playoff run as well, after guiding the Spurs to the best record in the Western Conference. Although every other nation faces their individual challenges, few carry the burdens of expectations to win.

As things have unfolded, it's already proving to be a tougher road than expected for the favoured Americans, months before the tournament tip-off on July 28.

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (Photo: Getty Images)

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(Photo: Getty Images)
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