When Sergio Scariolo first left the Spanish national team mere hours after guiding his nation to an Olympic silver medal at London 2012 – he left behind a team that was considered the top of its class in Europe – and ranked second in the world behind the USA.
Jose Antonio Orenga took over from Scariolo in 2013 in time for Spain to defend their Eurobasket crown that they won in 2011. Unfortunately they only managed to secure bronze at the Euros in Ljubljana but they were eager and impress when they were to host the FIBA World Cup the following year.
But even a star-studded line-up, including all known Spanish NBA players could not get past the quarter-final stage, losing to France. Fans donning ‘Espana’ red called for coach Orenga to resign and shortly after the World Cup, he stood down with fans wanting Scariolo to come back.
And the Italian-born playcaller did just that.
And by the time the dust settled on Eurobasket 2015, Scariolo and Spain emerged victorious and we’re back on top of the European mountain.
Eurobasket runners-up, Lithuania will get another shot at Spain in Rio. They’ve already won two pre-Olympic warm-up games against their bitter foe but for fans flocking to the Carioca Arena, Spain and Lithuania is not their main attraction.
That will be reserved for hosts Brazil’s clash in Group B against rivals Argentina. Both teams have a storied history and in FIBA world events [World Cup and Olympics] have faced each other often. Argentina ousted the Brazilians at the 2010 world championships and Olympic Games in 2012, with Brazil’s revenge coming at the FIBA World Cup, two years ago.
Group B is certainly wide open, in terms of who will finish where. Spain are notorious slow starters with their group stage performances not what many would expect from an elite basketball nation. Their pool stage showings came under scrutiny at the London Olympics, especially when they lost to Brazil in their final group game from leading 66-57 after three quarters and cruising, they went on to lose 88-82 with many believing that they lost that game on purpose.
So with that said, Group B will no doubt be the tighter of the two pools in Rio with plenty of exciting match-ups on offer.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: Eurobasket winners 2015.
Spain, once again will be considered one of the closest contenders to the United States alongside France. But, as mentioned, they traditionally are sub-par in pool play and usually show their true identity when it matters in the knockout stages.
Marc Gasol is the only big name missing for Spain, but they captured last year’s Eurobasket without him. His brother Pau along with Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Nikola Mitotic are in.
Prediction: Under Sergio Scariolo, Spain will be a podium contender but the biggest surprise might very well be their start to Rio 2016. Will they come out all guns blazing and send statements early or will they be slow starters? Either way, they should advance from this group.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: Eurobasket runners-up 2015.
Like the USA, you can’t have an international basketball tournament without Lithuania, who don’t have standout stars, because they don’t believe in that. They literally are all key players.
Even their supporters, led by legendary superfan, Sekla are a part of the national team. Though at London 2012, the Lithuanians were not allowed their infamous drum band into the arena and had to chant with their hands.
But regardless of what fans are allowed what to the Carioca Arena when the Olympic tournament tips-off, the Lithuanians will be all business and they will get an opportunity to exact revenge on Spain for their Eurobasket final loss last summer.
Prediction: Despite a silver in France last summer, that gave them an automatic birth to Rio 2016, Lithuania were not exactly convincing, with a loss in the group stages to Belgium and a close shave in the second round against Georgia being the most notable along with an overtime success against Italy in the last eight and a narrow three-point win over Serbia in the semi-finals as well. They will definitely be competing for a quarter-final spot but don’t be surprised if they scrape through.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Olympic Qualifying winners (Turin)
Philadelphia 76ers recruit Dario Saric and Croatian legend Toni Kukoc will have one thing in common when the Rio Games get underway this summer. Kukoc played for Croatia at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona before he was due to go to the Chicago Bulls. Saric will head to Rio eager to impress the NBA universe that will be watching before the 22-year-old heads to the Sixers.
But Croatia have talent and team chemistry in abundance when they compete in Brazil. Bojan Bogdanovic, Mario Hezonja along with veterans Krunoslav Simon and Roko Leni-Ukic are included in a strong squad that overcame all in Turin.
Prediction: This will mark Croatia’s first Olympic showing since the Beijing Games in 2008 and this year they will find the going tough. On paper, they should beat Nigeria, but they will need to bag two more wins to advance. Look for Saric to play with a chip on his shoulder during the group stages as he tries to impress the NBA audience on the Olympic stage.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: Olympic host nation.
Brazil will look to go one better than the previous hosts and get through the groups in Rio. Great Britain had the nation on their side, but they fell at the first hurdle after losing their first four games before thrashing China in their last group game. Brazil will not have Anderson Verejao, Tiago Splitter or Larry Taylor but they do boast NBA talent in Leandro Barbosa of the Phoenix Suns, and Los Angeles Lakers guard Marcelinho Huertas.
The hosts will have an early shot at rivals and neighbours Argentina in the groups in the most eagerly anticipated contest to begin the basketball tournament at the Olympics. And with a colourful and passionate home crowd behind them, Brazil will look to impress.
Prediction: Brazil’s game with Argentina will prove interesting, and they will look to win that as a key for qualification. They will have the nation behind them and the hosts will see that as an advantage but advancing will be difficult in such a tight pool.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: FIBA Americas runner-up 2015.
It is highly likely that the golden generation of the Argentina national side will call it a day following the Rio 2016 Olympics as Luis Scola, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Delfino and Andres Nocioni all feature. All four are entering the twilight of their professional careers and once they all decide to step away from the international arena, Argentina will be a different basketball nation with rebuilding on the brain.
But as for the present, the Argentines will look to advance from this group with the fantastic four of Scola, Nocioni, Delfino and Ginobili providing the bulk of the scoring. They probably won’t go as far this year as the near podium miss in London, four years ago but from 2002 to now; it’s been a helluva ride.
Prediction: One of the oldest teams in the Olympics and they use their veteran heads to get past the groups, but anything other than a quarter-final place will be a good result for Argentina.
HOW DID THEY QUALIFY: AfroBasket winners 2015
After years of dominance, Angola’s stranglehold of Africa is over, and qualifying for back-to-back Olympic Games, Nigeria enter Rio with more experience and with the big-hearted continent of Africa behind them (oh and not having the USA in their group *wink, wink*).
But despite being on the receiving end of the 156-73 scoreline against the USA plus not having a lot of financial backing in London, Nigeria will not be in Rio to make up the numbers. Veterans Al-Farouq Aminu and Ike Diogu are likely to compete in Rio but so too is Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli who stated in May that he planned to play for D’Tigers in the summer.
Prediction: More experience, hopefully Festus Ezeli and an even stronger bond will boost Nigeria in Rio, but they are unlikely to advance from a tough Group B. Rest assured that they will compete with every team they face and make life difficult for them.