FIBA World Cup knockout preview: Team USA-Spain final inevitable?
The 2014 FIBA World Cup heads into its knockout stage this weekend with all of its top medal contenders -- including favorites USA and Spain -- yet to be eliminated, thanks to a forgiving format and a decided lack of upsets.
A series of five round-robin opening round games has cut the 24-team field down to 16 finalists with little cause for surprise. None of the eight teams that were eliminated -- Angola, Egypt, Finland, Iran, Puerto Rico, Philippines, South Korea and Ukraine -- were among the top 12 favorites to win the tournament, which will culminate in a championship game in Madrid on Sept. 14.
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The 16 finalists line up neatly with FIBA's official pre-tournament rankings, as all nine of the top 10 teams that qualified for the tournament have advanced to the knockout round. In addition, only two lower-ranked teams have displaced higher-ranked teams: No. 24 Mexico (who supplanted No. 15 Angola) and No. 41 Senegal (who advanced in place of No. 17 Puerto Rico and No. 34 Philippines). These two underdogs almost certainly will not survive this weekend, as Mexico must face USA while Senegal draws Spain. Both USA and Spain compiled perfect 5-0 records in group play, with Greece as the only other team to go undefeated in the opening round.
Here's a look at the knockout round match-ups. Group play records and standings placements are included. A graphic version of the bracket is included below via FIBA.com.
Dominican Republic (2-3, No. 3 in Group C) vs.
Slovenia (4-1, No. 2 in Group D)
USA (5-0, No. 1 in Group C) vs.
Mexico (2-3, No 4 in Group D)
New Zealand (2-3, No. 4 in Group C) vs.
Lithuania (4-1, No. 1 in Group D)
Turkey (3-2, No. 2 in Group C) vs.
Australia (3-2, No. 3 in Group D)
France (3-2, No. 3 in Group A) vs.
Croatia (3-2, No. 2 in Group B)
Spain (5-0, No. 1 in Group A) vs.
Senegal (2-3, No. 4 in Group B)
Serbia (2-3, No. 4 in Group A) vs.
Greece (5-0, No. 1 in Group B)
Brazil (4-1, No. 2 in Group A) vs.
Argentina (3-2, No. 3 in Group B)
USA was rarely challenged in the opening round, as it compiled a tournament-best 33.2 average margin of victory and won each of its five games by at least 21 points. Only once -- against Turkey -- was USA even seriously pushed into the fourth quarter. By comparison, USA won its group games by an average of 24.8 points on its way to gold at the 2010 World Championships and barely squeaked by Brazil in a two-point game. Anthony Davis (15.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 62.7 FG%), Kenneth Faried (13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 79.1 FG%) and James Harden (12.6 points, 4.4 assists, 62.7 FG%) have helped lead the way so far for coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The path to gold for the Americans looks entirely manageable. USA's worst-case scenario includes Mexico (No. 24), Slovenia (No. 13) and Lithuania (No. 4). It's possible that the Americans won't truly be tested until the semifinals, as USA drilled a guard-dominated Slovenia 101-71 during a pre-tournament exhibition last month. Lithuania has two NBA players -- Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas -- and a number of top performers in Europe on its roster but it must get past a fellow top 10 foe in Turkey (No. 7) or Australia (No. 9) to advance to the semifinals. The Aussies added a layer of intrigue to this side of the bracket when they appeared to intentionally lose their opening round finale against Angola so as to avoid the Americans until the semifinals.
After emerging unscathed from the so-called "Group of Death," Spain could face a tougher path to the championship game. The Spaniards -- paced by Pau Gasol (21.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 61.9 FG%), Marc Gasol (11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 66.7 FG%) and Juan Carlos Navarro (11.2 points, 3 assists, 51.4 FG%) -- cruised through Group A, compiling a 25.2 average margin of victory and winning each of its games by at least 16 points. A worst-case path to the championship game includes Senegal (No. 41), France (No. 8) and Greece (No. 5). Although the Spaniards thumped a Tony Parker-less French team by 24 points in the opening round, the fierce rivalry between the two neighbors would surely produce some tense moments in a hypothetical quarterfinals showdown.
The Greeks -- led by Giannis Bourousis (12 points, 10 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 50 FG%), Georgios Printezis (11.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 52.2 FG%) and Nick Calathes (10.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 52.4 FG%) -- were the unsung heroes of the opening round, posting four double-digit victories on their way to a 5-0 record. If anyone is going to spoil the much-anticipated USA vs. Spain final, Greece is probably the likeliest candidate.