With the FIBA World Cup almost upon us, Ball So Hard looks at the teams from Group B, which consists of the Philippines, Senegal, Puerto Rice, Argentina, Greece and Croatia, that will take the court in Spain.
The basketball-mad Philippines will make their fifth appearance at the FIBA World Cup – their first appearance since 1978 – after an impressive runner-up finish in the 2013 FIBA Asia.
Led by star point guard Jayson William ‘Castro’, who earned All-Tournament selection after averaging 11.8 points and 3.0 assists through the Asia Championship, the Philippines finished the competition with a 7-2 record.
American-born centre Marcus Douthit was also a standout at the tournament, averaging 11.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks for his adopted nation.
However, the 35-year-old missed the Final against Iran in 2013 due to an injury and his time with the national team looks to have run its course.
Replacing Douthit as the team’s naturalised player for the World Cup will be Brooklyn Nets power forward Andray Blatche, who was granted Filipino citizenship in June and will debut for his new homeland in Spain.
Last NBA season, Blatche averaged 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds for the Nets and his addition to the roster will be a major boost for the star-starved Philippines.
Standing 6’11”, Blatche will be one of the few bigs suiting up for a team with an average height of 6’4”.
William measures just 5’9”, while wing scorers Jeffrei Chan and Ranidel De Ocampo both measure less than 6’6”.
Size and athleticism will be Gilas Pilipinas’ biggest challenge at the World Cup and any adversity they face against taller teams could see them bundled out of the tournament before the knockout stages.
However, the Philippines biggest strengths, speed and outside scoring, are often the catalyst to upset victories.
The aforementioned William and De Ocampo, combined with veteran floor general Jim Alapag, give the Philippines one of the fastest backcourt rotations in the tournament. Meanwhile, their propensity to bomb away from beyond the arc and the addition of Blatche to the squad should endear them to neutral fans, even if they do not come away with many wins, or make it out of the group stages.
Basketball is the most popular sport in the Philippines and their team will be one of the feistiest and most passionate at the World Cup, especially given their 36-year absence from the competition.
If they can get hot from beyond the arc, a few passion-fuelled wins could see them advance from the group stage, but the likelihood is that the feel-good story ends in the preliminary round for the Filipinos.
Group Prediction: Sixth
Senegal qualified for the FIBA World Cup after winning the Bronze Medal at the 2013 FIBA African Championship.
The Lions finished third despite winning two more games than Silver Medallists Egypt, after an upset loss to a resurgent Egyptian team in the semi-finals.
Senegalese hopes of surprise advancement from the group stages hang on the health of star centre, Mouhamed Sene, and the play of Minnesota Timberwolves youngster, Gorgui Dieng.
Sene, who was drafted 10th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2006 and has since enjoyed stints in Europe, hurt his left knee last October and has been rehabbing the injury ever since.
With a 7’8” wingspan and elite athleticism, Sene is the backbone to Senegal’s defence and led the team in rebounding at AfroBasket 2013.
He has been named in head coach Cheikh Sarr’s 22-man preliminary squad, but will need to prove his health to make the journey to Spain.
Meanwhile, Dieng is yet to represent his country at an official FIBA tournament, but has declared his desire to suit up for Les Lions at the World Cup.
If Sene cannot recover in time for the competition, Dieng, who averaged 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks over the last 18 games of his rookie season with the Timberwolves, will be charged with anchoring the African’s defence.
Fellow big men, Hamady N’Diaye and Mouhammad Faye (14.4 points per game through five FIBA tournaments), have also spent time playing in the United States.
Meanwhile, South Carolina State and Milwaukee University point guards, Louis Adams and Thierno Niang have also been listed in Sarr’s preliminary 22.
Also receiving the call from Sarr, 19-yeard-old forward Pape Diatta, who led Senegal in scoring at the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship with 14.3 points per game, could be an exciting prospect on the wing if he makes the final team.
Perhaps it is Diatta, even as a player that has yet to debut for the senior team, that best represents the Senegalese national team – exciting, full of potential, but still raw and unproven.
Listed by FIBA as the 41st best team in the world, Senegal is the third lowest ranked team at the World Cup, behind only Egypt and Ukraine.
However, the same Egyptian team bested them at the 2013 AfroBasket tournament.
They’re athletic and exciting, but do not expect to see Senegal to make it past the group stages.
Group Prediction: Fifth
Puerto Rico qualified for the FIBA World Cup after a Silver Medal finish at the 2013 FIBA Americas Championship.
Buoyed by the performances of All-Tournament selections Renaldo Balkman and Juan José Barea, Los Gallos finished the competition with a 7-3 record and only fell two points short of Mexico in the Gold Medal game.
Balkman, who was drafted with the 20th pick by the New York Knicks in 2006 and also spent time with the Denver Nuggets, was one of the stars of the Americas tournament, averaging 18.7 points (third best), 8.9 rebounds (fifth), 2.8 steals (first) and 1.4 blocks (tied first) for the tournament.
Meanwhile, the backcourt pairing of Minnesota Timberwolves guard Barea and former NBA journeyman and current Galatasaray S.K. floor general Carlos Arroyo give the Puerto Ricans proven scoring punch and leadership.
However, Los Doce Magníficos legend Larry Ayuso, who has been with the national team since 2001, was a part of the team that upset the United States at the 2004 Olympics and averaged 8.1 points at the Americas competition, has been left out of head coach Paco Olmos preliminary roster.
Likewise, 38-year-old centre Daniel Santiago, who averaged 6.3 points and 2.0 rebounds at FIBA Americas, was left off the preliminary team, but could still be called up, as giant centre Peter Ramos continues to struggle with a knee injury.
Power forward Ricardo Sánchez (the only player currently on the team that stands at least seven feet) was a reliable interior presence last year, while small forward John Holland was a fantastic wing scorer in spurts.
Puerto Rican Basketball Federation president Carlos Beltran revealed that the national team had held hopes that NBA duo Shabazz Napier and Moe Harkless would opt to play at the World Cup, but neither were listed in the preliminary team and it seems unlikely either will be a part of the squad.
Puerto Rico might not be as globally recognised as a basketball powerhouse, but they are ranked 17th in the world for a reason and are FIBA competition regulars, appearing in the last eight World Championships – 12 overall.
On the flipside, the Roosters have never medalled at a World Cup, and while their draw will see them avoid the United States in knockout stages, they will face one of the qualifiers from the “Group of Death” in the second round – likely Spain, Serbia, Brazil, France or Iran – and a medal placing is again unlikely for the South Americans.
Group Prediction: Third
Argentina named a strong nine-man squad to compete in Spain, but could see injuries decimate their chances of taking home a medal.
Big man Juan Gutiérrez has already been ruled out with a hip injury, while a stress fracture in his foot could keep San Antonio Spurs star Manu Ginobili off the court and swingman Carlos Delfino is racing to recover from several foot surgeries that prevented him from playing in the NBA last season.
“We will have to wait but I know his commitment,” said head coach Julio Lamas of Ginobili’s availability.
“If he is well, he will go to the World Cup.”
Regardless, there is still plenty of talent at Lamas’ disposal, with NBA duo Luis Scola (Indiana Pacers) and Pablo Prigioni (New York Knicks) committed to playing, and former NBA sharpshooters Andrés Nocioni and Walter Hermann also on the squad.
They were relegated to third in last year’s FIBA Americas Championship, after dropping their semi-finals matchup to eventual champions Mexico.
However, they are the only team to oust the Americans for Olympic Gold in the last 22 years and are a realistic chance to meet the United States later in the tournament, thanks to their favourable draw.
Health will have the biggest say in how far they go, but Argentina are an international basketball powerhouse and are poised for a deep run in the tournament.
Group Prediction: First
Greece sputtered to a second-round exit at EuroBasket 2013, but were granted a Wild Card entry to the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
The World Cup will be an excellent chance at redemption for a team that was missing several key players at the European Championships and failed to medal for the second consecutive tournament.
Absent at EuroBasket, Memphis Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes will provide a steadying hand as he returns to the national side. However, his teammate Kosta Koufos has withdrawn from the national side – much to the frustration of the coaching staff.
Meanwhile, the addition of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who recently completed his rookie season with the Milwaukee Bucks, gives the 2006 Silver Medallists an elite athlete on the wings to pair with veteran scorer Nikos Zisis and youngster Kostas Papanikolaou.
Likewise, the veteran trio of two-time Euroleague champion Giorgos Printezis, Real Madrid centre Giannis Bourousis and stretch four Kostas Kaimakoglou give head coach Fotis Katsikaris a solid frontcourt rotation to work with.
Veteran combo guard Kostas Vasileiadis was amongst several notable absentees from Katsikaris’ 16-man preliminary squad, after succumbing to a knee injury, while long-time national team servants Michael Bramos and Antonis Fotsis were simply omitted from the team.
The Greeks have a nice mix of athleticism on the wings and a robust interior presence and should be motivated to avenge their poor showing at EuroBasket 2013.
Despite their stumble at the Euros, Greece is still a top-5 team in the world and you can expect them to give Argentina a run for their money atop Group B.
Group Prediction: Second
Croatia qualified for the FIBA World Cup after an impressive EuroBasket 2013 campaign that saw them reel off an eight-game winning streak mid-tournament and narrowly miss out on a medal, finishing fourth.
Headlined by recent Philadelphia 76ers draftee Dario Saric and EuroBasket All-Tournament selection Bojan Bodanovic, who trailed only Tony Parker in scoring at the competition with 17.4 points per game, Croatia have some of the brightest young stars at the World Cup.
Damjan Rudez’s shooting at the Euros earned him a contract with the Indiana Pacers, while naturalised American Oliver Lafayette will replace the injured Dontaye Draper in the point guard rotation.
Barcelona centre Ante Tomic will once again man the pivot, while veteran point guard Roko Ukic is more than capable of running Croatia’s offence.
Meanwhile, power forward Mario Delas, veteran Krunoslav Simon and young trio Mario Hezonja, Luka Babic and Darko Planinic are all in contention for a spot in head coach Jasmin Repesa’s final 12.
Once a powerhouse of international basketball, boasting the likes of Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja and claiming Olympic silver in 1992, Croatia will be eager to end an 18-year drought without a medal in FIBA competition.
However, they will need to produce a dream run to unsettle some of the tournament’s major players and an early knockout stages exit seems likely.
Group Prediction: Fourth