The FIBA World Cup rages on and is now entering the defining stages. If you haven't been watching, you've missed out on some high quality, competitive basketball featuring a lot of the world's best players. But it's never too late to give it a go, since now is when things get truly interesting.
The last time we had an update, the knockout stage was beginning after the group play ended. Now, we are going into the semifinals, after some huge upsets and schadenfreude-filled karmic retribution. So let's get you caught up.
What happened since the last update?
Teams from Group A crushed teams from Group B. Serbia beat Greece, France beat Croatia, Brazil finally avenged all those recent losses to Argentina and Spain decimated Senegal. It was clear what the stronger group was from the beginning, but no one was expecting such a lopsided overall result. Particularly strange was Greece, which at that point had been unbeaten, falling to a Serbian team that has underwhelmed a bit in the group stage.
On the other side of the bracket, things pretty much played out as expected, except for what happened to Australia. As you remember, Australia allegedly tanked the last game of their group stage to avoid Team USA in a potential quarterfinal match. As a result, they drew Turkey as their round of 16 opponent. It seemed like the gambit was going to pay off until, in excruciating fashion, Turkey advanced thanks to a fadeaway 3-pointer by forward Emir Preldzic with five seconds to go.
The other teams that advanced were the ones that were expected to move on. The U.S. beat Mexico with ease, Lithuania took care of New Zealand, and Slovenia beat the Dominican Republic.
So the quarterfinals then pit USA against Slovenia, Turkey vs. Lithuania, France vs. Spain and Brazil vs. Serbia. There were two overwhelming favorites to advance: the U.S. and Spain. I already told you what happened to Spain, and Slovenia could only make an interesting first half before being blown out by Team USA. What happened in the other two matches was more interesting.
Jonas Valanciunas was huge for Lithuania as they outlasted Turkey. These two teams had size, a NBA-caliber center each (Jonas and Omer Asik) and depth provided by veterans of European ball. The game was close but Ksystof Lavrinovic, Darjus Lavrinovic and Valanciunas proved to be too much inside for Turkey, and the Lithuanian defense contained an unimaginative Turkish offense to advance after a 73-61 win. Lithuania is a basketball-crazed country, but it's still amazing how they manage to always make it far on big tournaments.
On the other game, Brazil was high in spirit after finally getting past Argentina, which they did in decisive fashion thanks to a dominant second half. The tables turned in their quarterfinals match, in which Brazil kept it close for the first two quarters only to be blown out in the second half. Serbia was always a darkhorse contender, a sleeping giant that had as much potential as any team, outside of Spain and the U.S., to medal thanks to their depth, length and raw talent. After not showing much in the group stage, they finally awoke in this game and thoroughly dominated Tiago Splitter and friends.
The semifinals are here!
This is where the tournament truly gets intriguing. Lithuania likely won't beat the U.S. but they have the fundamentally sound guard play and especially the height and shooting from interior players that could give Coach K and his guys a headache. This will be the first true test Team USA will get. If they paid attention to how things played out for Spain when they finally faced a quality opponent in a knockout stage, they know they should be focused from the get-go.
USA vs. Lithuania
Valanciunas vs. Anthony Davis will be extremely interesting to watch. Davis is a destroyer of worlds, so we are not talking about guys on the same level. But Jonas seems to be slowly reaching his potential and was a handful for Omer Aski, one of the league's best defenders, in the past game. The U.S. has the edge on the perimeter, as they have had all tournament long, especially with Lithuania's Mantas Kalnietis out.
France vs. Serbia
As for the other semifinal match, Serbia has to be considered the favorite to advance. What France has done is remarkable, especially in light of all the absences they suffered. They showed against Spain that you can't sleep on them and expect to win just by showing up. They are talented and confident and Diaw is so versatile that he can plug most of the holes the team has. Nicolas Batum should be expected to bounce back as well after a quiet game against Spain.
That being said, Rudy Gobert played out of his mind on Wednesday and Thomas Heurtel arguably outplayed the stacked Spaniard backcourt. Can they have a repeat performance? It's possible. But Serbia is just too deep and experienced to devolve into isolation play as much as Spain did and should also control the boards. The Milos Teodosic-Bogdan Bogdanovic backcourt is a bit inconsistent but supremely talented and can take over games. Inside, Nenad Krstic and Miroslav Raduljica eat space up in a way France can't replicate.
Who will advance?
My prediction is a USA vs. Serbia finals, which while not as intriguing as the Spain-USA showdown everyone was expecting, should be interesting.
USA vs. Lithuania will tip off at 2 p.m. central time on Friday, and France vs. Serbia starts at 3 p.m. Saturday.