By RYAN HAYES
The draw for the London 2012 Olympic basketball tournament which took place in Rio de Janeiro earlier today (Monday) has placed Great Britain in Group B alongside back-to-back Eurobasket Champions and World Number 2, Spain.
The drawing of the groups certainly marks the start of a period of intensified preparation for the coaches of the national teams involved, but will finally make the Olympic Games a much more palpable prospect for those players lucky enough to be vying for a place in the final squad selections.
Team GB Head Coach Chris Finch has admitted that seeing the draw made has provided both new focus and a certain amount of relief. “The coaches and players have been waiting for this day for months, if not years. Now we can begin preparing for our opponents,” he said.
While the fans may well have been hoping for a marquee match-up with Mike Krzyzewski’s USA, the GB camp will no doubt be relieved to have dodged the bullet. Their final pre-tournament warm-up game against the reigning Olympic Gold Medallists will provide the sort of challenge that GB will need to prepare themselves for the games against Spain, Australia, China, Brazil and whoever qualifies for the final spot, but advancing to the knock-out phase will still prove difficult.
“At this level, there are no easy groups and the draw proved that every game at the Olympics will be really tough,” insists Coach Finch. Indeed, Team GB face three countries all ranked within the World’s Top Ten in Spain (2), Australia (9) and China (10), while Brazil sit just outside in 13th.
Throw into that equation the potential arrival of Greece (4), Lithuania (5), Russia (11), Angola (15) or Puerto Rico (16), all of whom are involved in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas in July, and you begin to see the size of the task facing Finch’s men who are ranked a relatively lowly 43rd
Team GB are not, however, without confidence and nor should they be. There is a surge of optimism amid the camp, helped by the conspiring of a number of positive factors. Firstly, the home side can safely acknowledge that they have avoided landing in the tougher of the two groups.
Group A includes two sides with formidable Olympic experience – France and Argentina – as well as two empty berths waiting to be filled by two of the previously mentioned qualifiers whom Team GB would wish to avoid.
Chris Spice, Team GB’s performance director, was upbeat. “We can’t complain about that draw in the men’s, it gives us something to shoot at,” he said. “The big unknown for us I suppose is Brazil. We have either played everybody else or will possibly have met them in a warm-up.”
That Brazil are taking part in several friendly warm-up games against teams heading to Caracas for the OQT will give the Team GB coaching staff a perfect opportunity to scout them against opponents of the right calibre. That, at least, should ensure that no big surprises await in the group stage.
Perhaps most reassuringly, Team GB can take a huge amount of confidence from their most recent performances against two of Group B’s other major sides, Australia and China. In the Olympic Test Event held in London last August, Britain enjoyed a significant victory over China by 8 points before losing very narrowly, 91-90 to Australia in a cracking game.
The event was designed as an opportunity to test the logistical management of London 2012’s basketball venue and staff but served as a welcome test of just how far Team GB have come in a very short time. Their last appearance in the Olympic Games was as hosts back in 1948 and it is worth stressing that Great Britain only became a FIBA member in 2005, competing in just two Eurobasket tournaments in their history.
While there is a lot of progress still to be made, Coach Finch has assembled a squad that can at least now realistically compete in the international game. This was demonstrated by the solid team performances in the test event and by the important contributions of key individuals. Joel Freeland (Unicaja Malaga) was instrumental in the victory over China with a double-double (18 and 13) while Britain’s first truly legitimate basketball superstar, Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls, recorded 26pts and 9 rebounds in the loss to Australia.
Reasons to be positive, then.
With the weight of home advantage and the top four of six advancing, Team GB has an excellent chance of reaching the tournament’s latter stages. However, it seems as sure as the rising sun that the USA will top Group A at a canter which will leave everyone in Group B, including Team GB, desperate to finish higher than fourth.
With a starting five that includes four NBA stars (P. Gasol, M. Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon) and their equally world-class captain, Juan Carlos Navarro of FC Barcelona, Spain only narrowly missed out on gold in Beijing four years ago and will be looking to go one step further in London.
La Roja are clear favourites to top Group B but how the dust settles after that is anyone’s guess.