Friday, August 18, 2006

World Championships Begin Tonight!

Chris Sheridan has picked Spain to win the World Championships in Japan (Insider required), refusing to buy into the 'new' Team USA of Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski. As you all know, I'm not a big fan of the Team USA makeover, and I don't think they will win the championship, but you'd have to be crazy to pick someone else.

Let me explain - I don't think the US is going to win, but only because when the Tournament becomes single elimination in the round of 16, you have to win four straight games to win the title. From a purely statistical standpoint, if Team USA is a 3-to-1 favorite to win any single game, that means that they would win 75% of the time. Winning 2 in a row is 56%. 3 in a row - 42%. 4 in a row - 32%.

So a team that is a 3-to-1 favorite in individual games against the other teams in the competition still has a less than 1 in 3 chance to win the championship. But any other team (like say Spain) would be a much bigger longshot to win out. That's just math. The US would be a lock if each round were best of 7 - but it's not.

And while there aren't really 16 top quality teams out there, unfortunately Group C happens to be a deep evenly matched group. The winner of Group D (which certainly should be the US) will play the fourth place team from Group C, which could be any one of five pretty good teams: Australia, Brazil, Lithuania, Greece or Turkey. And after that you start seeing the Serbias, the Frances, the Spains and the Argentinas. These teams can all play.

Sheridan goes through 10 reasons he thinks they won't win. Some of them are spot on. Some of them are just plain silly. (Body odor? Are you kidding? Kids who grew up playing playground ball all day are not gonna play D because the other guy smells bad? C'mon! I'm not sure if he's being ironic, stupid or xenophobic.)

The conspiracy threories are also getting a little old. Is it possible the international referees are more likely to whistle American superstars? Well, maybe. But all of this 'They keep calling traveling on LeBron and Wade' stuff is ignoring one thing. These are not bad calls! LeBron and Wade are traveling! They do it all the time. The fact that they don't call it in the NBA doesn't mean a thing. As for fouls, it seems again that we may be noticing a difference between FIBA and the NBA, where the refs incessantly protect the superstars by giving them the benefit of every call. After watching DWade and LeBron get every whistle in the NBA, it would SEEM like FIBA was out to get them if all they did was call the game straight up.

Now, I'm the first to point out that Tim Duncan got screwed in Athens by bad calls. But we're USA basketball. We SHOULD be 12 deep, 3 deep at every position. The fact that we only brought 4 guys to Japan that can play the 4/5, and that only one of them (Elton Brand) can actually score in the low post or block shots? That's our fault for not taking the right team.

And the quality of officiating is not great, but I don't buy it that everyone is out to get the US. In the USA-Brazil tune up, every questionable call went against Brazil. However, I will say that inconsistent whistles tend to change games, and can help weaker teams overcome stronger teams, which is another factor working against the US.

(This ranting has made me realize something. If USA Basketball is really interested in helping overcome some of the disadvantages the US faces in International competitions, they could start with NBA officials. I'm not advocating that we necessarily adopt a trapezoidal lane or allow the ball to be knocked off the rim, but if NBA refs actually called traveling the way the rule book defines it and stopped giving deference to NBA superstars, it would both make the NBA game more enjoyable and help reduce the FIBA-shock our players experience when they go to these tournaments.)

Anyway, if you ask me to pick a winner, I would pick the US. This is a talented team, albeit one with weaknesses at the point and in the middle. But I put their chance at less than 50%. Argentina has the advantage of having played together forever, and has plenty of talent as well. France is very good (but they lost any chance they had to win it all when Tony Parker went home with a broken finger; he's one of those unguardable guys who can take over a game on the offensive end, and I've always said that point guard play is crucial in international play, but without him, they won't have enough.) Spain is good. Brazil is good (Barbosa is probably the quickest player in the tournament with Parker gone.) And don't sleep on Serbia. Any team from Europe has talent, when you consider that Russia didn't even qualify for the Worlds. Slovenia has 4 NBA first rounders, for Pete's sake.

The days of 72 game international winning streaks are over. The US hasn't gotten that much worse; but the world has gotten that much better. If I have to pick one team, I pick the US. But if you'll give me the field, I'll take the field.