The FIBA World Cup has reached the knockout stage. On Saturday, teams will battle for a spot in the quarterfinals, so let's get set by taking a look at the matchups.
Dominican Republic vs. Slovenia
The Dominican Republic finished third in Group C with a record of two wins and three losses. With Al Horford sitting the tournament out, the team relies heavily on Rockets swingman Francisco Garcia. In the group stage, Garcia averaged more than 20 points per game on a scorching 61.2% from the floor (65.4% from three!) but he was their only player averaging double-digit points. There is some talent on the roster and big man Jack Michael Martinez is extremely fun to watch but it's unlikely the Caribbean team beats the more well-rounded Slovenians.
Beno Udrih and Erazem Lorbek are not playing but the Dragic brothers - Goran and Zoran - have been carrying the team offensively with the help of shooting guard Domen Lorbek. Slovenia lacks the elite inside presence needed to truly be a threat to the top teams but they do have size. Their only loss came in the last game of the group stage against Lithuania, which means they beat Aron Baynes and Australia. If they can prevent Garcia from going off, they should advance to face the U.S. in the next round.
USA vs. Mexico
The U.S. will beat Mexico, that much is a given. Mexico is the last winner of FIBA Americas and has talent, headlined by Gustavo Ayon and Jorge Gutierrez, but they have no depth and not enough scoring to withstand the attack of an American team that has been as dominant as expected so far. Ayon carried the team past the weak Group C with wins over Angola and Korea, but the fact that they haven't beaten any decent teams would make them a huge underdog against any first-seeded team. Drawing the U.S. means they have to play a perfect game to even have a chance at an upset.
New Zealand vs. Lithuania
New Zealand pulled off a small upset by advancing and eliminating the Ukraine from the competition. Their records were the same but New Zealand had the tie-breaker and grabbed the fourth spot. They were competitive in all their games, except for their match against the U.S., thanks to balanced scoring and effort from their undersized frontcourt. Unfortunately for them, Lithuania is waiting in the round of 16.
The size advantage the Europeans hold is enormous. New Zealand only has one player over 6-foot-10, center Rob Loe. Lithuania has four, including NBA players Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas. Had they not lost point guard Mantas Kalnietis to injury before the tournament, they would have been almost a shoo-in for the medal round. But even weakened by that setback, Lithuania should move into the next round easily.
Turkey vs. Australia
Australia blatantly tanked their last group stage game against the weak Angola in order to avoid the U.S. in a prospective quarterfinals match. They sat their two best players, Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles, and limited the minutes of the other members of the starting lineups severely. They wanted to lose, plain and simple. And they did, invoking the wrath of Goran Dragic. As a strategy, it was smart, but Australia might have been thinking too far ahead. To get to the quarterfinals and make the tank job worth it, they will have to go through Turkey first.
The absences of Ersan Ilyasova and Hedo Turkoglu have limited the offensive potential of the squad but Turkey is still a powerful team, led by Omer Asik. They are certainly a stronger team than the Dominican Republic, the team the Boomers would have faced had they beaten Angola, and Slovenia had beaten Lithuania. And Asik is exactly the type of player who can neutralize Baynes' impact.
If the basketball gods truly exist, the Boomers should lose as karmic retribution for their stunt. But because it would be interesting to see Baynes battle Valanciunas in a potential quarterfinal matchup, I'm hoping that doesn't happen.
France vs. Croatia
This is what Brett Brown had to say about 20-year-old Croatian forward Dario Saric: "I've had the opportunity to coach Boris Diaw for many years in my 12 years with the Spurs. There's some similarities that I see in Boris and Dario."
How awesome is it then that we get to see them going head-to-head? Some people still believe that in the Sixers' effort to continue to suck, they only drafted Saric because he was staying in Europe and couldn't improve the team right away. But from what I've seen of him, it's very possible he was the best player available. 6'10 guys with ball-handling skills are not that common and some day Saric could very well be a better player than Diaw. He isn't right now though, so it will be interesting to see if BoBo goes at the youngster, who is a poor defender at this point in his career.
There are some other fun matchups, like soon-to-be Net forward Bojan Bogdanovic versus Nicolas Batum, and bruiser Joffrey Lauvergne versus nimble giant Ante Tomic. Croatia, which finished second in Group B, should beat France. They are deeper and arguably more talented than this version of Les Blues. But they have underachieved so far, so anything can happen. This should really be a good game.
Spain vs. Senegal
Senegal was a pleasant surprise in this tournament, advancing to the round of 16 when they were considered a lock to be eliminated in the group stage. They have size and athleticism and a star in Gorgui Dieng, so the future is bright. But this is as far as they will go this year. Spain should easily advance, carried by its vastly superior talent. Next round the Spaniards will be tested by the winner of France vs. Croatia. But Senegal just isn't even close to their level.
Serbia vs. Greece
Serbia surprisingly finished fourth in Group A despite having a talented roster. And because of that, they will have to face an unbeaten Greek team which boasts NBA talent in Nick Calathes, Giannis Antetokounmpo and newly-signed Rocket Kostas Papanikolaou. This battle between two traditional European basketball powerhouses should be extremely fun to watch and could be closer than both teams' records indicate it should be.
This game is likely to be quite physical and it wouldn't shock me to see a fight break out. Ioannis Bourousis battling Miroslav Raduljica could cause an earthquake on its own. And there is some bad blood between the two teams. So if you are into old-school, grinding basketball, this is the game for you. Greece should be considered the favorite to advance but an upset is not out of the question.
Argentina vs. Brazil
These two teams have faced each other in a knockout stage in the last two major tournaments and Argentina prevailed both times. Now it's Brazil's time to get revenge. Argentina still has one of the most dominant FIBA players ever in Luis Scola, not to mention the veteran leadership provided by Andres Nocioni and Pablo Prigioni. But without Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino, they are more vulnerable than ever.
Brazil has exactly the type of imposing frontcourt that can hurt the undersized Argentine squad. On paper, Nene should kill Scola one-on-one while Splitter and Varejao contain him on the other end. Nocioni starts at power forward for Argentina, so the size advantage should be huge, allowing Tiago's team to control the boards. Brazil should win this.
At the same time, it's obvious Argentina is in Brazil's head by now. One of the Brazilian assistant coaches said "Argentina wants to play against Brazil more than Brazil wants to play against Argentina." And that could be a factor. Argentina won't beat itself. It will be up to Brazil to show that they are finally ready to take the next step and start living up to their potential.
The U.S. will kick off the round of 16 this Saturday at 10 a.m..