The 2011 FIBA Americas Championship begins Tuesday in Mar del Plata, Argentina, with two bids to the 2012 London Olympics on the line. As is often the case, the United States won't be participating: Team USA has already clinched an Olympic bid by winning the 2010 FIBA World Championship. That gives a wonderful opportunity for the region's second- and third-tier teams to jump up and win an early bid.
The third, fourth and fifth place finishers will earn a trip to the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament to be held in July 2012. That's a 12-team field from which three teams will be added to the 12-team Olympic field. The London Olympics begin July 27, 2012.
Here's a preview of what Group A of FIBA Americas has to offer. The top four finishers will move onto a second group stage; from there, the top four will compete for the two Olympic spots and the Americas title.
FAVORITES WITH AN ASTERISK: BRAZIL
Brazil would be the favorite to win Group A ... if only the nation's top three stars weren't sitting the tournament out. Nene was an early casualty of the team -- he's an NBA free agent, and insurance would obviously be a problem considering he's likely to sign a multi-year deal worth tens of millions of dollars. Leandro Barbosa also pulled out; he has one more year on his deal with the Toronto Raptors, and signed a lockout deal with a Brazilian club. Finally, Cleveland Cavaliers big man Anderson Varejao also pulled out due to injury. That leaves Brazil with just one of its four NBA players: Spurs reserve Tiago Splitter.
Brazil does boast some solid Euroleague talent, like point guard Marcelinho Huertas, and a couple of former NBA bit players in Alex Garcia and Marcus Vinicius. That talent pool should allow Brazil to contend for the top of the group. But the nation's unlikely to be a powerhouse without its stars, and the later rounds could prove sobering.
THE BIG QUESTION MARK: DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Outside of Team USA, Argentina and Brazil, no team has been stocked with more talent than the Dominican Republic over the last few years. Despite that, the Dominicans have proven unable to qualify for a major global tournament (either the 2008 Beijing Olympics or 2010 FIBA Worlds) and can't get over the hump in the Americas region. With Al Horford, Francisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva, this team should be right on par with a fully-loaded Brazil team. Instead, even when Brazil is missing stars (as in the 2009 FIBA Americas Championship, with Worlds bids on the line), the Dominicans have been unable to overcome.
Enter John Calipari, who took over for former coach Eric Musselman. (We'll see him in a moment.) Calipari wants desperately to get himself onto the Olympic stage with Team USA/Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, and he believes he can get the Dominicans there. The talent is enough to win the group and beat any team here (though Argentina would certainly be favored in a matchup). But can the D.R. finally do it? We'll find out.
TRANSITION PHASE: CANADA
Canada basketball has a bright, bright future; consider that No. 4 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft Tristan Thompson won't be playing in this tournament, and that a number of future first-round picks (Myck Kabongo, for one) are also awaiting a call-up in the next few years. The pipeline is promising. But the current incarnation of the squad is somewhere in between: there are three NBA players (Andy Rautins, Joel Anthony and rookie Cory Joseph) and old standby Carl English, but not much else. That talent certainly isn't as good as that of the Dominican, yet Canada has a long-running and stable program under Leo Rautins that provides more confidence.
Canada should get out of group play simply because the bottom of the group is so mediocre. But landing in the top half of the second group stage could be difficult, unless Anthony is a difference-maker defensively against the more talented squads and English and Rautins can handle the primary scoring duties with zest.
Venezuela: Led by the Grizzlies' Greivis Vasquez and veteran Oscar Torres, Venezuela adds an interesting wrinkle on the sideline: Eric Musselman took over the team this year after being replaced in the Dominican. I'm not sure whether Musselman would consider his Wednesday match with the Dominican a grudge match, but keep an eye on that. Otherwise, Venezuela simply needs to beat Cuba to likely ensure passage to the second group stage. From there, the path to the Olympics is so fuzzy as to be almost inperceptible.
Cuba: Cuba has never finished higher than fifth at FIBA Americas, and since 1999 hasn't finished higher than 10th. (There are 10 teams in the competition.) Cuba hasn't even qualified in many years, and withdraw after qualifying in 2009. It is unlikely Cuba will win a game.