2012 Summer Olympics: Power Ranking Basketball's 8 Top Medal Contenders

Brian Leigh@@BLeighDATFeatured ColumnistJuly 3, 2012

PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 15:  (L-R) Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, members of the women's and men's gold medal winning USA Olympic basketball teams, wave to the crowd during half time of the 58th NBA All-Star Game, part of 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend at US Airways Center on February 15, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Despite basketball's piecemeal expansion into all parts of the world, and the gradual development of a competitive international balance, America still remains the undisputed favorite to take home the gold in 2012.

But it's not as close as one might think.

Perennial challengers like Spain and Argentina are back and better than ever, while some intriguing dark horses have primed themselves for medal contention.

The field is not yet final, with the FIBA World Qualifier currently underway to round out the brackets. But assuming the best teams qualify in the coming week, here are the eight best bets to take home a medal in 2012: 

1. United States (Qualified)

Notable Players: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony

The stars will be out in full force once again, with LeBron and Kobe both signed up for another year of action, and newcomers like Kevin Durant and Kevin Love rounding out the lineup.

But this year's USA squad has more questions than past teams. Most notably, the absence of Dwight Howard has our front line relatively barren. Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler is expected to anchor the center position, but LeBron will likely be forced to play power forward.

This could be a problem against a much-improved Spanish front line, and other capable big men, such as France's Joakim Noah and Brazil's Nene.

But still, the star power of this team, which is expected to bring Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin off the bench, is enough to make the team hard to beat.

2. Spain (Qualified)

Notable Players: Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez

The Spanish must overcome the loss of Ricky Rubio in the backcourt, but other than that they should be firing on all cylinders.

They actually have a better frontcourt than the USA does. Pau is still Pau, but since the 2008 Olympics Marc Gasol has improved astronomically, and they've added Serge Ibaka to help protect the rim against America's high-flyers.

The backcourt could be a problem, where Calderon, Fernandez and Navarro could have to guard players like Paul, Westbrook and Kobe. But their frontcourt should provide ample help in the lane.

France played them close in the 2011 EuroBasket final, but other than that they looked pretty dominant en route to the championship.

3. France (Qualified)

Notable Players: Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Mickael Pietrus

Their chances at stealing the gold or silver ride on the condition of Tony Parker's eye. He is seeing a specialist on July 5, and the prognosis of that meeting will determine his status this summer.

Assuming he's cleared to play, however, France will be a formidable challenger for every team in the field. Parker is the engine that makes them go, but they get savvy play from Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw, as well.

Inside, Joakim Noah has proven that he can match up with the NBA's best bigs, so he should excel in anchoring France's defense.

They finished second to Spain at the 2011 EuroBasket tournament, staying close throughout before losing by 13.

4. Argentina (Qualified)

Notable Players: Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto

The peskiest team in the field, Argentina's whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

Not to say that there aren't good parts. Manu Ginobili can score against anybody, and Luis Scola has one of the most advanced back-to-the-basket games in the world.

Throw in the savvy play of NBA veterans like Delfino, Nocioni and Oberto, and you have a team that fears nobody––including America.

They play with a typical South American style of flair and cocksure, but it works for them. They squeaked through a surprisingly competitive field to win the 2011 FIBA Americas, beating Brazil by five in the (ultimately irrelevant) finals.

5. Brazil (Qualified)

Notable Players: Nene, Leondro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter

Brazil's steady ascent in the national basketball world has hit its apex this summer as they come into London with high expectations.

With proven NBA commodities lining their frontcourt, they know they have the size, skill and muscle to play with anybody in the world. Nene, Splitter and Varejao have all looked pretty good the past two years and look to carry their momentum into the summer.

The key to Brazil will be Leondro Barbosa, they best perimeter scoring threat on their team. Opposing defenses will be looking to slow him down, and he will have to minimize mistakes without conceding and playing too cautiously.

6. Australia (Qualified)

Notable Players: Patty Mills, David Andersen, Aleks Maric, Matthew Dellavedova, Andrew Ogilvy

If Andrew Bogut wasn't injured, they'd be a threat to sneak into the final. As it stands, they are still a solid dark horse to poach away a medal.

Patty Mills, who has always impressed in international play, improved by leaps and bounds under Tony Parker's tutelage this season. Along with St. Marys' Matthew Dellavedova, he forms an explosive Australian backcourt.

In the middle, former NCAA standouts Aleks Maric and Andrew Ogilvy join David Andersen to form a formidable frontcourt. Maric, in particular, has a chance to be one of the biggest surprises of the tournament. He might even be able to parley it into an NBA job.

7. Puerto Rico (Not Qualified)

Notable Players: Jose Juan Barea, Renaldo Balkman, Carlos Arroyo, Daniel Santiago

Puerto Rico was part of a feisty field at the 2011 FIBA Americas, losing to Argentina 79-81 with a spot in London on the line.

With the loss, they will have to qualify this week in Venezuela, but should they advance to the Olympics, watch out.

With Jose Juan Barea, he of 2011 NBA playoff lore, leading the charge, Puerto Rico is a frustrating out for anybody they face. Veteran NBA hustle player Renaldo Balkman puts in work down low, while steady point guard Carlos Arroyo keeps his less-controlled teammates in check.

They should not be overlooked if they qualify.

8. Lithuania (Not Qualified)

Notable Players: Linas Kleiza, Jonas Valančiūnas, Šarūnas Jasikevičius, Darius Songolia

2008's surprising bronze medalists are also fighting for a qualification spot in Venezuela this week, after a shocking upset at the hands of Macedonia at EuroBasket 2011.

In spite of that, Lithuania is a blue-collar, ragtag bunch that fears no team in the world. Their roster is inundated with NBA veterans, such as Linas Kleiza, Šarūnas Jasikevičius and Darius Songolia.

Like the Toronto Raptors, however, the key to their success may rest in the hands of young Jonas Valančiūnas, who is set to help anchor them in the post. 

Valančiūnas' international resume is impressive: He scored 30 points and added 13 rebounds in a 105-107 loss to the United States at the 2011 U-19 Championships. He would go on to lead them to the gold medal of that tournament.

If Valančiūnas can establish his presence in London (assuming they make it there), Lithuania could be coming home with some more hardware.


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