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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, August 31, 2019 1:00 am

US domination on shaky ground

TIM REYNOLDS | Associated Press

SHANGHAI – The biggest basketball World Cup is about to begin.

Many of the world's top players – and a couple of the world's top national teams – are not in China for the FIBA World Cup, a 32-team extravaganza that begins today. At stake over the next 16 days: The world championship, along with seven of the 11 remaining available berths in next summer's Tokyo Olympics.

And several teams figure they can be the one to thwart the United States' bid for an unprecedented third straight crown.

“We're here to go for gold,” said Sasha Djordjevic, the coach of Serbia – a team that some consider the tournament's gold-medal favorite. “Every game that we play will be the biggest game for us.”

The first eight games of the tournament are today, and things will move quite rapidly. The eight-game-a-day pace continues through Sept. 9, with quarterfinal games on Sept. 10 and 11, semifinals on Sept. 13 with the event capped by the gold- and bronze-medal games in Beijing on Sept. 15.

All told, 92 games will be played in eight cities.

“We have nothing to lose,” said Japan guard Yuta Watanabe, whose team will face the U.S. in the group stage.

FIBA changed much about the tournament for this edition. The event was moved back a year; the last World Cup was in 2014, and it was bumped to 2019 this time around to avoid going against the FIFA World Cup for men's soccer in the same years. The field was expanded from 24 to 32 and qualifying rules were vastly altered largely to keep NBA and other pro-league players from helping their countries reach the event.

For some nations, that became a huge problem.

European champion Slovenia, the world's seventh-ranked team, is not in the World Cup. Same goes for world No. 9-ranked Croatia, which lost eight of its 12 qualifying games. Yet for other nations, the changes sparked opportunity – Nigeria, Venezuela, Italy and Japan all qualified for the first time since 2006, and Poland made the field for the first time since 1967.

“The World Cup is an unbelievable competition,” said Canada coach Nick Nurse, who doubles as coach of the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. “Great teams and coaches and scouting and work and preparation that will make anyone better for going through that. So I'm extremely honored and excited and humbled to be here.”

Most of the top Americans aren't in the World Cup, a few because of injuries, other candidates cited schedule concerns. Of the 35 leading scorers from this past NBA season who would have been eligible to play for the U.S. team, only two – Kemba Walker of the Boston Celtics and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz – are wearing the red, white and blue in China.

“I'm more concerned with who is here than who isn't,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said.

For the international teams, though, there's minimal concern about big-name absences. Greece is led by NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, Serbia is led by All-NBA center Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and France features third-team All-NBA center Rudy Gobert.

“It's a rare opportunity for all of us,” former NBA player Yi Jianlian, now the Chinese captain, said in Beijing earlier this week. “You can feel the special duty when you see the national flag on your chest.”