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Start Your Office Pool, the Bracket is Set

Well, all that worrying about being in a ridiculously difficult quadrant of the Sweet 16 turned out to be over nothing.  If Team USA wanted to avoid Greece and Spain until later in the tournament, they got their wish

The Greece situation was rather straightforward - the loser of Greece vs. Russia would finish second in Group C and slot into Team USA's quadrant.  I didn't see the game, but there was no tanking at the lineup level as both teams played their regulars.  Russia built a big lead in the third quarter and held on to win.

For Spain, it was a little less expected.  Sure, we figured that Spain would beat winless Canada, even playing as poorly as they have.  But it was the final game of Group D that provided the real surprise.  France, who had won their first three group games, lost for the second day in a row, to a supposedly inferior New Zealand team.  That result left France, New Zealand and Spain tied at second through fourth in the group, and Spain won the second tie breaker to finish in second position.  New Zealand ended up third, and France fell from second to fourth.

FIBA tie breakers are strange, but I think I have this.  First they look at head-to-head among the three tied teams.  Since they were 1-1 against each other (Spain beat New Zealand, the Kiwis beat France, les Bleus beat Spain), they have to go to the second tie breaker.  That is point percentage in the games against each other; it's like point differential, but also takes into consideration the total points, so as to normalize for high scoring teams versus low scoring teams.  I'm not going to do the math of the percentages, but Spain was +11 (won by 17, lost by 6), New Zealand was -5 (won by 12, lost by 17) and France was -6 (won by 6, lost by 12).  It seems likely that New Zealand knew the tie-breaker rules pretty well going in.  They got the ball back with 12 seconds to go and a 9 point lead.  You dribble out the clock, right?  Nope, they hit a three to move the lead to 12, and jump from fourth to third in the standings.  Does it matter?  Well, France now has to face host Turkey in the round of 16 while New Zealand plays Russia.  J'adore cette jeu!  New Zealand had to win by 12 to jump out of fourth - 11 would not have done the trick.  Crazy.  At least France is moving on to the next stage, unlike their World Cup team.

Here's the beauty part: if indeed Greece wanted to lose to Russia, it was at least partly to avoid a round of 16 matchup with Spain.  Since both Greece and Spain flipped over to the other half of the bracket, they still meet each other in the round of 16.  Ooops.  The Greek players will not be sending Christmas cards to the French players this year.  One of the pre-tournament favorites will be eliminated Saturday.

Who are the disappointments from Group play?  Well, Germany had a very promising start, in close losses that went down to the wire against the top two teams in their group, Serbia and Argentina.  But an overtime loss to Angola Wednesday sealed their fate as a first round exit.  There wasn't much expected from the Germans without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman, but still one would hope they could beat Angola with a trip to the second round on the line.  The young guys (Robin Benzing, Elias Harris, Tibor Pleiss) didn't step up.  They'll have a hard time qualifying for London, and you can forget it if Dirk sits out the qualifying tournament.

Puerto Rico had their ticket to the second round in hand, needing only a win against the lowly Ivory Coast to finish fourth in Group C.  But they neglected to show up today, and lost to Les Elephants 88-79.  That result created another three way tie, this time between Puerto Rico, Ivory Coast and China, which China won on the second tie breaker to advance.  Had Puerto Rico stayed within 5 or less, they still would have advanced even in a loss, but instead China gets the (undeserved) trip to the knockout stage.  In their defense, Puerto Rico is not the same team without Carlos Arroyo, who was injured in the first game and did not play after that.

Finally, although Canada was not expected to do much here, nor were they expected to lose all 5 games, including defeats to Lebanon and new Zealand.  The Canadians were at least competitive, with a 2 point loss to Lithuania and a 5 point loss to France, and according to Ziller in this morning's Works at FanHouse, the future of Canadian hoops is bright.

Let's hope so for the sake of continental pride.  Only the US, Brazil and Argentina advance to the round of 16 from all of the Americas.  That's only one more team than Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) has left in the tournament.  Of course, Australia and New Zealand are the only teams in Oceania.  Hell, there a three teams still alive from the former Yugoslavia.  (Serbia and Croatia actually meet Saturday in the round of 16, a game that could easily end in bloodshed.)  And for all the complaints about Africa not deserving three bids, Angola is advancing, Ivory Coast beat Puerto Rico and even Tunisia acquited themselves fairly well today.  I'm not suggesting that Angola is going to beat Team USA, but the quality of basketball in Africa has definitely improved since Charles Barkley was elbowing Angolans in 1992.

As luck would have it, the top half of the bracket turns out to be the European half (with 7 out of 8 teams from Europe) while the bottom half is the rest of the world (only 2 European teams among the 8).  If you assume that European basketball on the whole is more competitive, then in the end the US wound up in the easier half of the bracket, Argentina and Brazil notwithstanding.

For Clipper fans who miss Wang Zhi-Zhi, his China team is still around and will face Lithuania on Tuesday.  For those who miss former second round pick Guillermo Diaz (who played six games for LAC in January 2008), you're out of luck, as his Puerto Rico team is heading home.  As for MBFGC, after serving his two game suspension, Sofo led Greece with 16 points today and seems to be doing what he does - shooting a high percentage, missing a bunch of free throws, wracking up the personal fouls. He's also rebounding better than he has in the past. 

Back to Team USA and their road to the Gold medal - they start with Angola on Monday in what should be an easy game.  In the quarterfinals, they'll meet the winner of Russia and New Zealand, probably Russia.  After that, the most likely semifinal opponent is Argentina, who has to meet rival Brazil in the second best game of the round of 16 after Greece-Spain.