NEW YORK - AUGUST 15: Yi Jianlian #11 of the China shoots the ball against Puerto Rico during their exhibition game as part of the World Basketball Festival at Madison Square Garden on August 15 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
How will China do in the 2012 Olympics without Yao Ming? They could reach the same stage, actually. We preview the team, led by Yi Jianlian.
The last time we saw China in the Olympic men's basketball tournament, Yao Ming -- the world's largest nation's largest (in every sense of the word) star -- welcomed NBA fans to his homeland. China fared rather well with home court advantage: the team went 2-3 in group play with wins over African champ Angola and Germany. In the latter, Yao dueled Dirk Nowitzki to a near standstill: the Maverick had 24 and 17, while the Rocket racked up 25 and 11. Lithuania easily ejected China in the quarterfinals, but all told, the tournament was a success for Yao and China.
Now Yao has retired, and that's left a gaping hole in the Chinese team. Despite that gaping hole, China continued its rarely interrupted dominance of Asia, winning its Olympic bid in last summer's continental championship, hosted in the central city of Wuhan. Asian basketball has long been dominated by China, but Middle East nations has risen up the ranks, with Iran being China's most frequent rival. In 2011, it was Jordan who tested the Chinese, with the Gulf nation beating Iran in the quarters and losing to China by only a point in the title game. Jordan went on to lose its last chance to qualify for the Olympics in this July's qualification tournament, but figures to test China's Asian dominance again in the future.
China's Asian title proves that the loss of Yao won't mean the loss of relevance for Chinese basketball in international competition. But there's no question that China is far less likely to escape group play without the 7'6 megalith. Wang Zhizhi, the former Maverick, is a fine player, and he replaces Yao as starting center. But that's a massive downgrade, and it hurts the nation's frontcourt depth considerably. Yi Jianlian (another former Maverick!) is the team's best player at power forward, and while he should put up numbers, he's a clear step or two below most Olympic nations' best players.
Sun Yue and veteran Liu Wei are respectable in the backcourt, though there are some particularly nasty match-ups due in Group B (like Australia's speedy Patty Mills and Brazil's tandem of crafty Marcelo Huertas and lightning bolt Leandro Barbosa). To advance to the knockouts for the second straight Games, China will likely have to beat Great Britain (likely) and either Australia or Russia. It could happen, but you'd be wise not to bet on it.
Here's the rundown on Team China.
FIBA World Ranking: 10
How they got here: Champions of 2011 FIBA Asia Championship, earning automatic berth
Previous Olympics experience: No medals, 2012 marks eighth straight bid
Most important group games: vs. Australia (August 2), vs. Great Britain (August 6)
Players you've heard of: Yi Jianlian, Wang Zhizhi, Sun Yue
Medal hopes: Quite slim
Future outlook: Quite good, actually!
Inevitable Jeremy Lin question from casual NBA fans: No, Jeremy Lin does not play for the Chinese national basketball team.