For the first time since the 2014 FIBA World Cup got underway, the United States and Spain will not matter on Thursday. Sure, the co-favorites will be in action and their games the most highly discussed and publicized of the bunch.
The results of said games? They're about as meaningful as the "if there's anything I can do for you, let me know" quote a boss will give right after he's fired you.
The United States clinched its Group C victory with a 106-71 rout of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, its fourth straight of an embarrassing margin. Spain also clinched Group A with an 88-64 win over France, which gives the host country a point differential of plus-110. The U.S. and Spain are the only teams that have margins of over 100 points—and the next highest is plus-57.
So Spain and the United States play little more than glorified exhibitions. Spain might have some issues with a strong Serbian squad, while the United States will continue its cupcake-crushing against Ukraine. Elsewhere, though, there is basketball with actual bracket implications.
Let's shift the focus away from the two favorites for once and preview Thursday's action by highlighting some of the lesser-knowns.
|Australia vs. Angola||7:30 a.m.||ESPN3|
|Senegal vs. Philippines||8 a.m.||ESPN3|
|Finland vs. New Zealand||9 a.m.||ESPN3|
|Brazil vs. Egypt||9:30 a.m.||ESPN3|
|South Korea vs. Mexico||11:30 a.m.||ESPN3|
|Ukraine vs. USA||11:30 a.m.||ESPN2|
|Iran vs. France||12 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Croatia vs. Puerto Rico||12 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Lithuania vs. Slovenia||3:30 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Turkey vs. Dominican Republic||3:30 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Serbia vs. Spain||4 p.m.||ESPN3|
|Argentina vs. Greece||4 p.m.||ESPN3|
Croatia vs. Puerto Rico (Noon ET)
This game comes with a bevy of contingencies for Croatia. Win and they're in. Lose and they're out. Senegal, Argentina and Greece have each clinched spots in the elimination round, leaving this an all-or-nothing contest for both teams.
But Croatia, the significant favorite coming into the contest, comes in just as interested in its margin of victory and the outcome of the two other games in its group. The 8 a.m. contest between the Philippines and Senegal will help determine whether it'll have a legitimate shot at moving up to the No. 2 seed with a win.
Should Philippines pull the slight upset—and I mean slight; Philippines' scoring margin is better than Senegal's despite one being 0-4 and the other 2-2—Croatia will be in a prime position heading into the elimination round. A Senegal loss coupled with a Croatian win would lock Croatia into a top-three seed and thus avoid the looming round of 16 matchup against Spain for the fourth-seeded Group B team.
The best-case scenario for Croatia might be landing in the No. 3 seed and facing Brazil to start its elimination round. That would only happen if both Senegal and Greece lose due to head-to-head tiebreakers.
Of course, all of this is contingent on getting around Puerto Rico. Which, when judging these two teams on merit, should not be all that difficult. The only reason the Croatians are even in this spot is a still mostly unexplainable loss to Senegal. A 7-of-25 shooting performance from deep and an all-out assault on the painted area from Gorgui Dieng allowed the underdog African nation to pull off a surprising upset—especially given Croatia had defeated Argentina 24 hours prior.
Puerto Rico's only win came against a Philippines team that the entirety of Group B has taken a liking to beating by a half-dozen points. Andray Blatche might give Croatia the same issue, but the talent elsewhere is lacking. Croatia should be able to get its shooters back into a rhythm on Wednesday—as basically every other team has done against Puerto Rico.
France vs. Iran (Noon ET)
This should be a blowout.
France features four actual NBA players. France features two pretty damn decent NBA players and two players their respective franchises need to become much better than decent. Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum each turned in miserable games in their blowout loss to Spain on Wednesday, shooting a combined 6-of-21 from the field and failing to come through in the most important game of the tournament.
The World Cup has been a bit of a struggle for both players, each having to take on more of a starring role with Tony Parker not participating. It's been an up-and-down trek for Batum, who took six more shots than any other Frenchman against Spain. Diaw, even coming off his excellent NBA Finals, struggles with the night-to-night grind of the tournament.
But still. NBA players. Even throw in Antoine Diot and Joffrey Lauvergne, who have been more reliable than their stateside counterparts.
Iran features Hamed Haddadi and Samad Nikkhah Bahrami shooting a whole heaping pile of times while trying to prop up their talent around them. Haddadi, best known for his forgettable 151-game career in the NBA, has continued his all-out blitzing of international competition, averaging a team-high 18 points per game. Nikkhah Bahrami has been more chucker than effective but knocked down six threes in a 24-point performance against Egypt.
Haddadi might find some success against a France starting lineup that tries fitting Diaw in as a starting center, but that can be countered with Rudy Gobert. The Jazz center has been effective (albeit foul-prone) in his limited minutes thus far. If Nikkhah Bahrami finds the same magic he did Wednesday, then perhaps Iran can make this closer than expected.
The talent gap is just too wide, though. France should be more worried about whether Spain takes Serbia seriously enough to win.
Dominican Republic vs. Turkey (3:30 p.m. ET)
The only thing settled in Group C is that the United States is really awesome at basketball. Otherwise, it's an amalgam of crumpled-together teams each with a chance of somehow making it to the elimination round. All five teams can also be eliminated, which is what makes the Dominican Republic-Turkey game so intriguing.
It is the last game of the day for Group C, meaning both teams will know what they're walking into. It's possible the games will have have shaken out in such a way that all they're playing for is seeding. (The United States is going to obliterate Ukraine as it has the four other countries in this group). Finland defeating New Zealand would be key to that, as both Dominican Republic and Turkey have defeated the Fins earlier in the event.
That said, there's going to be something on the line with this game no matter what.
The Dominicans have played a solid tournament overall, with their only embarrassment coming against the U.S. They've struggled to find consistent scoring outside of Francisco Garcia, who sat out Wednesday to give his body rest for this make-or-break game. Domen Lorbek is the only other player on the Dominican Republic roster averaging 10 or more points per game.
Turkey has been defined by its team effort. Four players on the roster average at least 8.5 points per game, and none top Emir Preldzic's 12.5-point average. They've instead won on the back of their defense, which has allowed the fewest points in Group C among teams that have already faced the United States.
By one point. Sitting right behind them? The Dominican Republic. In fact, you'll have a hard time finding two more evenly matched teams. Turkey has scored five more points and allowed one fewer than the Dominican Republic. Odds are this will be a game that finishes somewhere in the low 70s and comes down to the final five minutes.
The biggest question is whether Turkey can stoke Omer Asik's flames into a stellar performance. The Pelicans center has been near-comatose offensively in Spain, which is acceptable when you're a bad offensive center in the NBA but not when you're this much more talented than the competition. Asik should—and I repeat, should—have success against the Dominicans. They had no answer for the U.S. bigs and start a small lineup even for international play.
It'll be interesting to see if Turkey takes advantage.
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