ANOTHER World Cup!?

YES, there is ANOTHER World Cup that starts next month. NO, it isn’t a soccer World Cup.

{Well, actually, there IS a soccer World Cup next month. Canada hosts the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup from August 5 to August 24—they also host the FIFA Women’s World Cup next summer. The United States are the defending champions, having won the 2012 edition staged in Japan. They’re favored to win again this year, and their player to watch is Lindsay Horan, who has scored 35 goals across 47 matches for top-flight French club Paris Saint-Germain, all before turning 20.)

It’s a basketball World Cup. Technically, it’s the first one. Though it’s been held just about every four years since 1950, every edition until this year was titled the FIBA World Championship. FIBA, in an attempt to capitalize on the flagship tournament of the similarly-named FIFA, renamed the tournament the FIBA Basketball World Cup for this year. This year’s tournament will be held in Spain. The next edition will also be in five years, so as to reset the cycle to prevent the tournament from being staged the same year as the FIFA World Cup.

The tournament is slightly less prestigious than the Olympic men’s basketball tournament, but FIBA hopes the rebranding will increase the level of competition, especially considering this is the first opportunity any country has to win the “Basketball World Cup.” The United States has, of course, dominated play, finishing in the top four of every tournament held save for 2002 even though NBA players have only been allowed to play internationally since the early 90s (see: Team, Dream).

Only eleven Hall of Famers, not including coaches.
Only eleven Hall of Famers, not including coaches.

Surprisingly, however, the USA isn’t the most successful country in this competition. They have indeed won four titles (1954, 1986, 1994, 2010) but they finish second in that category to Yugoslavia, who have won five (1970, 1978, 1990, 1998, 2002). They also have the same amount of runner-up finishes, with three. Of course, Yugoslavia no longer exists—the Serbian team owns their records since 1992.

So despite what you may think, this tournament isn’t necessarily a cakewalk for the USA like the Olympic tournament is. Due to the timing of the World Cup (late August-early September), many American players choose to skip it in order to remain fit for the NBA season, which begins in October. Notable players who are sitting out this year include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. Players who initially opted in but relented include LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin (who pulled out Thursday), Kevin Love (who pulled out Saturday), and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

The reasons for choosing not to participate differ from person to person. Some players are either recovering from injury or trying to avoid injury. Kevin Love falls under these criteria—he’s involved in about a hundred different trade talks right now and injuring himself overseas would derail everything. Other players don’t view the World Cup as prestigious enough to participate in. Considering the USA’s storied history in the Olympics compared to the fact they haven’t even won the most World Cups, there’s a bit less of a tradition to uphold here.

Even with some pretty notable missing players, however, the United States will field a stacked team as always. 2014 NBA scoring champion and MVP Kevin Durant is no doubt the leader of the team. The eleven remaining roster spots will be filled with players like Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Damian Lilliard, John Wall, and that’s just five.

That’s not to say the United States will be unbeatable. Several other nations will field strong teams with star players. Hosts Spain (Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio) is the favorite to challenge the United States, though the earliest they could meet is the final. Brazil (Nenê, Tiago Splitter), France (Nic Batum, Boris Diaw), Serbia (the supremely named Bogdan Bogdanović), Argentina (Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola), Croatia (Dario Šarić), 2010 runners-up Turkey (Ömer Aşık, Enes Kanter), Slovenia (Goran Dragić), Australia (Dante Exum), and Lithuania (Jonas Valančiūnas) are all countries with star power that has been honed in the NBA. Plus, there are plenty of other teams with players who have played domestically their whole lives and thus have high amounts of chemistry.

But before we make any predictions, it’s probably a good idea to get a grip on how this dang tournament works.

I’ll keep it simple. There are twenty-four teams. These twenty-four teams are split into four groups of six. These groups are:

Group A: Spain, Serbia, France, Brazil, Egypt, Iran

Group B: The Philippines, Senegal, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Greece, Croatia

Group C: United States, Dominican Republic, Turkey, Finland, New Zealand, Ukraine

Group D: Lithuania, Angola, South Korea, Slovenia, Mexico, Australia

The first round consists of the six teams in a group playing each other once, so each team plays five games. Teams are awarded two points for a win and one for a loss. The four teams with the most points in each group qualify for the next round (I won’t get into tiebreakers), for a total of sixteen teams. These sixteen teams, based on where they finished in their group, are seeded in a single-elimination bracket. They’re narrowed down to eight, then four, then two, and then one.

Though it’s not quite the exact same as the FIFA World Cup (also: no draws!) it’s pretty similar. There’s a “Group of Death” here, too, but this time it’s not the group that the US is in. In fact, the US probably has the easiest group. Group A here is the tough one: Spain are the hosts, France is consistently strong internationally, Serbia has a young team with a lot of history to live up to, Brazil is one of the best South American teams, and even Egypt and Iran are going to play their tails off.

And, no matter what, Spain can’t play the US until the final. Neither can any of the other teams in that Group of Death. The way the bracket is set up, teams from Group A and B will make up one half while C and D will make up the other. That means that no matter how well a team from group A or B plays, it won’t face the US until the final. The toughest tests for the US in the knockout rounds would be Lithuania, Turkey, Australia, and maybe Mexico. Interesting coincidence: if the US reaches the semifinal, that game would take place on September 11.

So, it’s time to get to the predictions. There are two things I will predict: the 12-man roster for the USA team and the results of the tournament. I won’t predict every game nor will I predict scores. I’ll do the standings of the four groups and the bracket. I’ll explain my choices below each one. Now, who’s going to suit up for the Stars and Stripes in Spain? Players are listed in order of confidence I have in them making the team.

Frontcourt (the tall guys)

Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, Chandler Parsons

Kevin Durant is a lock, as is Anthony Davis and Paul George. After that, the withdrawals of players like Love, Griffin, and Bosh make depth rather thin at rather important positions. Height and physicality are important factors in the international game, both of which Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins have a lot of, though they’re both raw. Their inclusion would give the USA three players capable of playing center. And rounding out the team is Chandler Parsons, who I don’t really like but at least he’s a big man who can shoot and stretch the floor, yet another important factor in the international game.

Backcourt (the short guys)

James Harden, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Damian Lilliard, John Wall, Kyrie Irving

Here’s where the USA is stacked. James Harden is a lock after scoring more than 25 points per game the past two seasons as the lead man in Houston. Derrick Rose is also a lock with Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau being one of the USA assistant coaches. Stephen Curry makes the team nine times out of ten with his ability to shoot from anywhere in the gym. Also, he’s one of my favorite players. Damian Lilliard led the Trail Blazers past the first round of the NBA playoffs with incredibly clutch shooting. John Wall did the same for the Wizards, albeit slightly less clutchily. Kyrie Irving will make the team based on his athleticism, not necessarily his success (or lack thereof) in Cleveland.

The USA will field the only team in the entire World Cup with all 12 players currently playing in the NBA. The best any other team will be able do (rosters don’t have to be finalized until the night before the first game) is no more than six. So, yeah, the USA are favorites and it would be a massive upset to see them not reach and win the final, especially with such an easy route. But there are twenty-three other teams playing there, and they know the game isn’t played on paper. Let’s start with Group A. Teams are listed in what I believe will be the order they will finish in. Remember: the top four teams advance to the knockout round, and the order they finish in determines who they play in that knockout round.

Group A: Spain, France, Serbia, Brazil, Iran, Egypt

Spain, as hosts, have an easier road than the other teams here but I doubt they’ll win every game. France will miss Tony Parker but fellow San Antonio Spur Boris Diaw will pick up some of that slack. Anything less than a knockout round appearance would be a massive failure for Serbia. Brazil have some NBA talent to lean on—they’ll squeeze through to the knockout round. Iran and Egypt had the misfortune of being drawn into a very top-heavy group but I do think one of them will pull off at least one exciting upset.

Group B: Greece, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Philippines, Croatia, Senegal

Anything goes in this group, and it’s the hardest one to forecast. Greece will win the group and make announcers’ lives a living hell with last names like Antetokoumpo and Papanikolaou. They and Puerto Rico will take advantage of the aged Argentina—eight of the nine players who have been announced for the Argentine team are over 30. Also, on Tuesday, it was announced that the San Antonio Spurs would be holding Manu Ginobili out of the tournament. The Philippines will play like hell to make that knockout round and they’ll make it. Croatia will miss the knockout round and heavily disappoint. Senegal could very well make the knockout round but they only have one player currently in the NBA—Gorgui Dieng, who just finished his rookie season in Minnesota.

Group C: United States, Turkey, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Finland

The United States will likely win every game here. Turkey will finish runners up to the US, just like the 2010 Worlds. New Zealand is a lot better at basketball than you think and they’ll take advantage of this group, which lacks a bit of depth. No offense to the Dominican Republic of course, as they’ll earn their knockout round spot. Ukraine will welcome the distraction but their journey will end after five games. Finland are participating in their first ever Basketball World Cup and the experience will be invaluable, but I’m hard-pressed to predict them winning at all.

Group D: Lithuania, Slovenia, Australia, Angola, Mexico, South Korea

Lithuania is really good at basketball. They finished as runners-up to France in the 2013 European basketball championship tournament (officially named EuroBasket). They’re currently ranked 4th in the FIBA world rankings. They can handle this group. Slovenia will ride star player Goran Dragić to the knockout round. Australia will sorely miss star player Patty Mills, who is sitting out due to injury, but they’ll survive for a bit. Angola is perennially a strong team internationally and they’ll advance even though it may be by the skin of their teeth. Mexico, who won the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship, will find recreating that magic a tough task in probably the second-strongest group of the tournament. South Korea are just plain thrilled they qualified at all over other Asian teams like China and Japan.

Below are the matches that this finishing order would result in for the knockout round. Bolded are the teams I believe will win.

Round 1: Spain-Philippines, Puerto Rico-Serbia, Greece-Brazil, France-Argentina, United States-Angola, Slovenia-New Zealand, Lithuania-Dominican Republic, Turkey-Australia

As much as I would like the Philippines to beat Spain for what would be the biggest upset in their history, Spain will handle them. Serbia will also beat Puerto Rico, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Puerto Rico pulled it off. Greece made the tournament as a Wild Card and will seek to prove they deserved that spot. Again, Argentina’s age will catch up to them and European champions France will take advantage of that. The United States will be careful not to get too complacent. Slovenia will continue to ride Goran Jordan. Lithuania is really good at basketball. Turkey versus Australia will be wildly exciting but the Aussies will hold out in the end.

Quarterfinals: Spain-Serbia, Greece-France, United States-Slovenia, Lithuania-Australia

The quarters have a decidedly European flavor to them, don’t they? Well, ten out of twenty-four teams in the competition are European. Two games here face European teams against each other, and they’ll surely be games of the tournament. Serbia will throw everything they have at Spain but the hosts will persevere. France didn’t win EuroBasket 2013 as a fluke. The United States will truly be tested for the first time but they too will persevere. Australia, still missing Patty Mills, will fall to Lithuania.

Semifinals: Spain-France, United States-Lithuania

The hosts will be under a tremendous amount of pressure to win here and it might catch up to them, but this will be a game with top talent and whoever wins it will rightfully deserve their place in the final. Homecourt advantage will see Spain through. Meanwhile, in the other semifinal, the United States face Lithuania, who lost by only five points when they met at the 2012 Olympics. They could very well lose here. It will likely come down to the final minutes, maybe even the final seconds. But they can’t possibly lose in the semifinals…right?

Final: Spain-United States; Third-place: France-Lithuania

Beating Spain in Spain will be a tremendous test for a team devoid of star players like LeBron James, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, and so on. But they still have Kevin Durant, as well as eleven other really good players. The United States will likely have just had a wake-up call in the semifinal, and they’ll ride that momentum to a second consecutive championship and the first-ever Basketball World Cup. Lithuania will face France in the third-place match, and they’ll exact at least a little bit of revenge for their EuroBasket 2013 final defeat against them.

So yes, I didn’t make too many way-out-there predictions. It just feels like Spain and the USA are destined to meet in the final. But, then again, I’m not too good at predictions. I’ll likely have gotten the group order all wrong and none of the teams I picked to make the semifinals will make it at all. But that’s why they play the game! The tournament begins on August 30, with all twenty-four teams playing in twelve games on the same day. Get as excited as I am—it’s going to be really fun.

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