Everything You Need to Know About FIBA World Cup 2014 Ahead of Knockout Rounds

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor ISeptember 4, 2014

Everything You Need to Know About FIBA World Cup 2014 Ahead of Knockout Rounds

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    After a day that saw teams throughout the FIBA World Cup ranks jockeying for strategic position, the final 16-team knockout bracket—slated to begin Saturday in Spain—has finally been set. 

    As expected, Team USA and Spain have emerged as the unquestioned favorites, setting up a collision course that could see the two basketball superpowers meet in the championship game a week from Sunday.

    But what about the rest of the bracket? How did we get here? Who amongst the field of 24 have shown the biggest upset potential? Which team has been the biggest disappointment? Any players to keep an eye on?

    Join us as we answer all these questions and more.

How Did We Get Here?

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    Daniel Tejedor/Associated Press

    With few exceptions, the top 5 FIBA-ranked teams—the United States, Spain, Argentina, Lithuania and Greece—have fit their respective bills. Barring any major first-round upsets, we'll be seeing plenty of top-flight matchups by as early as the quarterfinals (the round of eight).

    That's not to say there haven't been upsets along the way. Ukraine topping Turkey, Australia nipping Lithuania—these are just two surprise finishes that stand to have big consequences down the road.  

    Making things even messier, FIBA was marred Wednesday by allegations that Australia—which rested two of its key starters—intentionally threw its game against Senegal in order to secure a more favorable bracket, a move which could have profound implications once the knockout round begins.

    We'll dive into the specifics of the bracket a bit down the line. But suffice it to say the tournament is shaping up according to plan: With the world's best looking to hurdle a handful of plucky upstarts en route to some serious hardwood fireworks.

Biggest Team USA Storylines

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    Slow Starts: While Thursday's thumping of Ukraine seemed up to snuff, the Americans once again stumbled clumsily out of the gate. What’s more, it’s not the first time it’s happened—slow starts have been something of an uneasy hallmark dating back to a few of the team’s pre-FIBA exhibition games.

    Against teams as disciplined and mutually familiar as Spain, Greece, Brazil or Argentina, this kind of cavalier comeback will by no means be a given.

    Heir Apparent: Heading into Team USA training camp, Anthony Davis was already viewed as the squad's breakout-ready star. Through five round-robin tilts, the New Orleans Pelicans star hasn't disappointed, registering 15.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 63 percent shooting from the floor.

    Speed, Speed, Speed: With Kevin Durant and LeBron James both opting to forgo FIBA runs, Team USA has a bit of a conundrum on its hands: How, exactly, is it going to find consistent scoring?

    One of Krzyzewski's answers: Use his team's peerless length and athleticism to disrupt opposing offenses and get out in transition. The results have been something of a revelation, with Team USA leading the tournament in turnovers forced.

    A Rose Is Not a Rose: After looking every bit the former MVP during the team's brief training camp, Derrick Rose has struggled to find his groove through Team USA's first five games. The results: 5.4 points and 2.4 assists on a woeful 25 percent shooting from the field.

    With Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry there to help man the floor general position, Krzyzewski doesn't necessarily need Rose to be at his rust-free best. Sooner or later, though, the stiffer competition is going to call for something other than forgettable stat lines.

Team USA's Rocky/Easy Road

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    Following its 95-71 win over Ukraine Thursday afternoon, Team USA—5-0 round-robin record to its credit—has officially secured top billing for the FIBA World Cup’s knockout round slated to begin this Saturday in Spain.

    Based purely on the numbers, Krzyzewski’s troops would seem the prohibitive favorites to capture the squad’s fourth consecutive gold medal in international competition.

    But as Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley recently wrote, Team USA’s unique team-building strategy has always harbored boom-or-bust potential:

    This shuffling of roles and roster spots has presented a number of chemistry issues. While the talent level is high enough to rise above them in read-and-react transition chances—six of these players led their NBA teams in scoring last season, after all (not including former MVP Derrick Rose)—the problems have occasionally surfaced in clunky half-court sets.

    That, along with a wavering focus, led to the U.S. looking more vulnerable against Turkey on Sunday than Spain has at any point in the tournament. Turkey carried a 40-35 edge into intermission before the U.S. found its rhythm in the second half and skated to a 98-77 win.

    What Team USA lacks in pantheonic star power—no LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kevin Love—it’s thus far made up for with a combination of length and athleticism capable of turning opponent miscues into easy transition opportunities.

    Playing as a cohesive unit in the half court, however intermittent the stretches, is the biggest challenge Team USA faces going forward.

A Looming Gaint

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    Daniel Tejedor/Associated Press

    The most obvious threat to Team USA's bid for a fourth straight gold comes from the host country itself. Buoyed by a phalanx of feisty veteran guards and bolstered down low by the formidable front line of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Spain is custom-built to give Team USA fits.

    Playing nightly in front of a fervent home crowd, Spain—whose closest margin of victory came in a 19-point drubbing of Brazil—has yielded more than 70 points only once.

    Unlike many of the teams USA has faced, including during its pre-FIBA exhibition circuit, Spain is renowned for its ability to control pace and tempo. With Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio and Juan Carlos Navarro manning the backcourt, Spain is seldom sloppy with the basketball—something that's become a prerequisite for Team USA's dominance thus far.

    After two straight Olympic silvers and an uncharacteristically poor showing at the 2010 FIBA tournament in Turkey, Spain has looked every bit the determined behemoth everyone expected. The challenge for Team USA lies in not looking too far down the road, lest the more immediate bumps send them careening off the cliff.

Dont' Count These Teams Out

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    The tournament’s other undefeated team, Greece boasts a combination of size, defense and playmaking familiar to anyone who watched them shock Team USA during the World Basketball Championships in 2006.

    And while Slovenia’s brotherly backcourt tandem of Goran and Zoran Dragic has emerged as a force in its own right, the team’s lack of an interior presence, coupled with its having benefited from one of the week’s weaker brackets, could come back to haunt it.

    Two more perennial powers—Argentina and Brazil—likewise have a chance, with the right breaks, to bulldoze their way to possible top-tier showdowns with Spain and Team USA.

    And we can't forget Lithuania, which narrowly edged out Slovenia on Thursday to secure Group D's top spot. Known historically for ball movement and offense, the Lithuanians allowed the second fewest points (331) of any team in the tournament during group play.

Biggest Surprises so Far

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    Manimal Rights: Kenneth Faried wasn't even a lock to make the final cut, let alone start every game at power forward alongside Davis. All Faried has done is average 13.8 points and 7.8 boards on a ridiculous 79 percent shooting—which, not surprisingly, leads the field.

    Back In Blatche: One of the stranger storylines heading into FIBA concerned the curious case of Andray Blatche, the currently contract-less former Brooklyn Net who became an official Philippine citizen and, subsequently, the cornerstone of the country's FIBA squad.

    Looks like that was a good move for both parties. While the Philippines mustered only one win, the play of Blatche (he finished with averages of 21.8 points and a FIBA-best 13.8 rebounds) helped thrust the team briefly into the national spotlight. In the wake of Blatche's spectacular performance, it's worth wondering whether other NBA players might follow his unconventional path.

    Dieng Good: When Gorgui Dieng was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2013 NBA draft, he wasn't exactly considered a polished offensive player. But after a preliminary round in which the Senegalese star averaged 18 points and 11.4 rebounds, hopes are high that Dieng can translate his newfound confidence into some serious sophomore production back in the states.

    How to Pain Your Dragon: Goran Dragic was steamed about the way Australia rolled over against Senegal in an effort to avoid meeting the U.S. until the semifinals. Then, Lithuania beat Dragic's Slovenian side on the final day of group play to steal the No. 1 seed in Group D. With so much settled coming into the final day, nobody expected such a shakeup—and a controversial one at that.

What's Next?

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    Mark Ralston/Associated Press

    Krzyzewski and company will hit the court Saturday to take on Mexico, fresh off a fourth-place finish in Group D (Lithuania came out on top). Assuming the Americans advance past Mexico, they’ll take on the winner of the matchup between the Dominican Republic and Slovenia.

    The other half of the C-D bracket will pit New Zealand against Lithuania, the winner of which will take on the victor of Turkey vs. Australia.

    Spain held strong as the top seed from Group A. It will face Senegal in the opening round, then whoever emerges from France vs. Croatia.

    Serbia and Greece square off in Madrid on Sunday, followed by what's sure to be a heated matchup between Brazil and Argentina.

    In that respect, Spain definitely has the tougher row to hoe, with each of Argentina, Greece and Brazil currently being ranked in FIBA’s top 10.

    Still, all signs point to a collision course between Team USA and Spain—the world’s 1 and 1A basketball superpowers.

Detailed Bracket and Schedule

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    Madrid Bracket

    Saturday, Sept. 6

    France (A3) vs. Croatia (B2), 12:00 PM ET

    Spain (A1) vs. Senegal (B4), 4:00 PM ET

    Sunday, Sept. 7

    Serbia (A4) vs. Greece (B1), 12:00 PM ET

    Brazil (A2) vs. Argentina (B3), 4:00 PM ET

    Barcelona Bracket

    Saturday, Sept. 6

    USA (C1) vs. Mexico (D4), 10:00 AM ET

    Dominican Republic (C3) vs. Slovenia (D2) 2:00 PM ET

    Sunday, Sept. 7

    New Zealand (C4) vs. Lithuania (D1), 10:00 AM ET

    Turkey (C2) vs. Australia (D3), 2:00 PM ET