Great Britain, Lietuva, Espana or good ol’ USA?
As I made my way into the sports hall of St Patrick’s College in Ballymena on Sunday night, to watch Blackstone face the Elks in their first game of 2012, I was struck by two things: the familiar coldness (so often the harshest of welcomes for visiting teams), and the instantly recognisable colours and concentric circles of the Olympic games.
To see that the Olympics has already arrived in our local schools and sporting venues in such a visible way with 192 days to go, has sparked (for me) the first real flames of anticipation and excitement about the upcoming Games; particularly the basketball.
As you may be aware, the Olympic basketball tournament (under FIBA’s structural system) will be made up of twelve nations. So who’s in thus far, and how did they get there?
Although the USA faltered in 2004 (claiming a ‘paltry’ bronze), they have automatically qualified for this year’s finals by winning the FIBA World Championships in Turkey in 2010. Spain and France qualify as winners and runners-up of Eurobasket 2011 in Lithuania, while the FIBA Americas Championship has furnished us with two more potential heavyweights in the form of 2004 Olympic Champions Argentina and their neighbours Brazil. Australia, with their strong hoops pedigree, represent Oceania; 32nd ranked Tunisia are the surprise package from African qualifying; and China make their 8th consecutive finals appearance on behalf of Asia.
Thankfully, for all those concerned with local basketball (and I assume that is most of you, faithful readers), home interest was confirmed in March 2011 when FIBA granted Great Britain automatic host qualification for the finals by a 17-3 majority vote.
FIBA’s decision to award automatic qualification to the Luol Deng-led Great Britain squad was by no means a formality but may prove hugely significant for basketball here. That, however, is a story for another day. Watch this space…
So far then, we have nine qualified nations for the 2012 games, but who can we expect to see joining them in London this July and August?
A further twelve teams will compete in the Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament during the first week of July, so watch out for television coverage on (probably) Eurosport and/or Espn. The nations still in with a chance of Olympic glory on the hallowed hardwood will be drawn from all continents and the qualifying tournament itself promises to be nail-biting, with only three places at the finals up for grabs.
- Puerto Rico
- Dominican Rep.
With the draw yet to be made, there’s no telling who will emerge from the qualifying tournament. However, previous form, the FIBA World Rankings and your humble writer suggest that the teams to watch are Lithuania, Russia and Greece.
Greece have drawn upon a Europe-wide roster and a strong domestic competition in recent years, with Greek clubs among the leading Euro League contenders each year. Ranked 4th in the World, they won’t be going there to make up the numbers. A glittering array of stars from Spain’s ECB (Vasileiadis, Mavroeidis, Bramas) and the NBA (Kosta Koufos of the Denver Nuggets) will see to that.
Russia currently sit just outside the World’s top ten but have a strong track record at the Olympic games having claimed a medal nine times. Unlike Greece, their national squad is entirely domestically based with even Andrey Kirilenko back in Mother Russia playing for CSKA Moskva. They have a strong sense of unity and a rich basketball heritage; they will make their presence felt.
It’s worth considering however, that each of Russia’s previous podium places were claimed under the flag of the Soviet Union which included the talents of players drawn from a number of other, now independent, nations.
Lithuania (Lietuva to many of our readers) first participated in the Olympic games in 1992 and, given the vast array of Lithuanian talent on display every week in the BNI Leagues, none of us will surprised to learn how they fared. The Lithuanian men’s basketball team has reached the Bronze medal game at every Olympic Games in which it has competed, seizing the medal on three occasions.
Lithuania’s strength lies in their long-range shooting threat and revolves around the clinical guard play offered up by the deep-shooting trio of Mantas Kalnietis, Rimantas Kaukenas and Sarunas Jasikevicius. All three are 6’4” three-point-draining guards who lead the national team in scoring average with 32 points per game between them. It is this same spread of perimeter shooting threat that many us are familiar with, having played against the Cavaliers of Dungannon or the Knights of Kilkeel among others, that leads me to predict that Lithuania will secure one of the three remaining qualifying places for London 2012.
Who do you think will make up the rest of the qualifiers?
Who are you tipping for Olympic medals?
Will you be cheering on Great Britain, Lietuva or someone else entirely?
Your comments, tips and national fervour are welcome below…