With the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship tipping off on Tuesday, host nation Argentina has to feel extremely confident about its chances of winning one of the tournament's two Olympic bids ... especially with the United States sitting out the competition. (Team USA has already earned a spot in the 2012 London Olympics.) But what about the rest of Argentina's Group B? Below, we preview the Argentines and the four teams joining them for the first group stage in Mar del Plata.
OVERWHELMING FAVORITES: ARGENTINA
It'll be a shock if Argentina doesn't win the tournament. The nation has the best talent (Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni, Fabricio Oberto), the most stable program and home-court advantage. Anything less than gold is a disappointment, in my view.
If anyone can trip up Argentina in Group B, it'd be solid Puerto Rico. In the tournament as a whole, Brazil (coached by former Argentina head Ruben Magnano) and the Dominican stand the best chance of taking one from the Argentines. But even then, it'd be a major upset.
A CUT ABOVE: PUERTO RICO
Behind Argentina, Puerto Rico's the only other strong team in Group B. The P.R. took silver in 2009 over Argentina, Canada and the Dominican as the host nation; Brazil beat Puerto Rico in the championship game. But Puerto Rico struggled in 2010 at the FIBA Worlds, finishing 17th of 24 teams, shockingly failing to get out of group play ahead of China after a stunning loss to Cote d'Ivoire.
But Puerto Rico has some real firepower in Carlos Arroyo, J.J. Barea and new add Renaldo Balkman. Daniel Santiago has the task of dealing with Argentina's frontline and, eventually perhaps, the D.R.'s Al Horford. Puerto Rico should certainly land one of the three coveted spots in the last-chance Olympic qualifying tournament, if not one of the two outright spots in the Games. But overcoming Argentina should prove difficult.
Uruguay: Uruguay is a solid mid-rung team in the region, having finished sixth in the past two FIBA Americas tournaments. Unfortunately, that's not good enough to make a dent in the region's structure. Uruguay, on the considerable back of Esteban Bautista, should easily advance to the second group stage over Paraguay or Panama, but beyond that, it's difficult to see success.
Panama: Panama finished eighth in 2009 and ninth in 2007, so I suppose we can expect a seventh place finish in Mar del Plata, right? You'll actually recognize some names here, like the Nuggets' Gary Forbes and former North Carolina point guard Ed Cota. Panama needs to beat Uruguay or Paraguay to get out of group, and that's a manageable task. But like Uruguay, moving on against the top three teams in Group A or top two in Group B seems unlikely.
Paraguay: Paraguay hadn't qualified for FIBA Americas since 1989 before earning a spot in the 2011 edition last summer. A single win would be a raging success.