• Welcome back, HoopBallers, to our International Spotlight feature, where it’s time to take a deep dive into the upcoming FIBA World Championship that begins about a week from today! After a very busy offseason the NBA has slowed down the last few weeks but all basketball junkies will be tuning into the World Tournament hosted by China. A span of 16 days will have 92 games played in eight cities: Beijing, Foshan, Wuhan, Shenzhen, Dongguan, Nanjing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

    Here is what you need to know:

    — In a controversial decision, the 2019 World Cup was rescheduled from 2018 to 2019 for marketing purposes, and in order for it to not occur in the same year as the FIFA Soccer World Cup.

    — 32 countries qualified to play through preliminary tournaments that took place the last couple seasons. Five countries are from Africa, 12 from Europe, seven from the Americas, and eight from Asia and Oceania. The big absentees are obviously European champions Slovenia and Croatia, both of which failed to qualify for the World Cup and will not be present in China or at Tokyo next year for the Olympics.

    — For the first time ever, the group stage will expand from 24 to 32 teams, and the top two finishers in each group will advance to the second round. That will feature four groups of four teams playing a total of 16 games (two games per team, four games per group). In this second round, teams only play against teams they did not face during the first round. The top two teams from each group advance to the Quarterfinals, while the final phase of the World Cup is a 16-team, single-elimination tournament. You can learn more about the competitor system here.

    — The 8 groups for the first round of the 2019 World Cup were drawn back in March:

    With plenty of time until the World Cup begins, I’m going to break the preview into two parts following the official FIBA Power Rankings and starting from the bottom.

    The Pretenders

    Côte d’Ivoire (FIBA Ranking: 64)

    Côte d’Ivoire, unfortunately, has caught some attention for non-basketball reasons as the players have gone on a strike a few days ahead of China’s FIBA World Cup. The reason for the strike is that the Ivorian Federation owes them previously-agreed-upon bonuses, while the players have to cover up for their medicals on their own, and three injured players on the roster cannot afford doing so at the moment.

    Led by naturalized former UNC champion Deon Thompson and point guard Souleyman Diabate they play in arguably the weakest group in the tournament with China, Poland, and Venezuela so it’s not completely out of question that they advance to the next round which would be a tremendous success for them.

    Venezuela (FIBA Ranking: 20)

    Surprise, surprise, the players of Venezuela also went on a strike just two weeks prior to the beginning of the World Cup because the country’s Basketball Federation has neither paid for players’ nor provided them with the proper medical equipment. There was also a report on players and head coach Fernando Duro not being on the same page so things don’t really look good for a Venezuelan team anchored by brothers Jose and Gregory Vargas and Kobe Bryant’s cousin, John Cox, the leading scorer of the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup.

    Jordan (FIBA Ranking: 49)

    This will be Jordan’s second appearance at the World Cup after they saw action in Turkey in 2010, where they finished 23rd overall. The country’s program is being run by American coach Joseph Stiebing who counts on versatile forward Zaid Abbas, streak-shooting guard Mousa Alawadi and big man Mohammad Shaher Hussein.

    Meanwhile, their standout player is 31-year-old American-Jordanian guard Dar Tucker, who carried the offensive workload for his team in the preliminary rounds, averaging 21.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Playing in the same group with France, Germany and Dominican Republic they will compete for the best possible outcome in the Classification Round for places 17 to 32.

    South Korea (FIBA Ranking: 32)

    South Korea is a major force among basketball teams of FIBA Asia, having won a record number of 24 medals at the FIBA Asia Championship, but not much success has happened at the international stage.

    Their 12-man roster includes Heo Hoon, the first overall pick in the 2017 Draft of the country’s top division basketball league and naturalized American-born center Ricardo Ratliffe, aka Ra-Gun-A (!), in his first cap after earning the South Korea citizenship. They look like an easy out in Group B where they will face Russia, Argentina and Nigeria.

    Angola (FIBA Ranking: 39)

    Angola has competed in many international tournaments but they are mostly known for Charles Barkley’s legendary quote, “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble.”

    40-year-old Eduardo Mingas is on the roster and will join a small group of players who participated in five World Cups, while Hawks draft pick Bruno Fernando, the first Angolan to be selected by an NBA team in the draft, was invited to training camp but did not make the cut. Playing in Group D against Italy, Serbia and the Philippines, they are looking for a miracle.

    Dominican Republic (FIBA Ranking: 18)

    Head coach Nestor Che Garcia will not have Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford or James Feldeine at his disposal in China but he will count on a strong nucleus that features Victor Liz (the team’s leading scorer with 13.7 points per game in the preliminary rounds), Rigoberto Mendoza and Gelvis Solano for a team that finished 7-5 and advanced from Group F, along with Canada, Venezuela and Brazil.

    This will be the nation’s third appearance at the world summit while they registered wins against New Zealand and Finland to reach the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Spain. The Dominicans are a fast-paced team that will fight France, Germany and Jordan in their attempt to win one of the first two spots and advance to the next round and they are my favorite underdogs of the tournament.

    Puerto Rico (FIBA Ranking: 16)

    The Puerto Rican national basketball team has had a lot of success at the international stage, finishing among the top-8 in three of the four World Cups from 1990 to 2002. The current team resembles nothing compared to the past generation that featured Carlos Arroyo, Jose Ortiz, Larry Ayuso and Daniel Santiago, among others. They have failed to reach the top-16 in the last three editions of the FIBA Basketball World Cup but they were drawn to Group C, facing Spain, Iran and Tunisia, making them a favorite to advance past the first round.

    With J.J. Barea recovering from a ruptured Achilles, Puerto Rico bets on a young core, who for the most part led the team during the FIBA Basketball World Cup Americas Qualifiers, while integrating two new players, Isaiah Pineiro of the Sacramento Kings and Ivan Gandia-Eosa, who is a Junior for the North Florida Ospreys in Division II of the NCAA. Meanwhile, former Knick Renaldo Balkman and veteran guard David Huertas will provide the necessary experience.

    Senegal (FIBA Ranking: 37)

    The African squad features a very talented group of players with size and length even though Gorgui Dieng withdrew form the tournament and Tacko Fall failed to gain a spot in the 12-man roster that heads to China.

    Former Knickerbocker Maurice Ndour has made a name for himself as an elite defender and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in Russia. The Lions have only one player under 6’9” and will present a defensive challenge but they were unfortunate in their group drawing as they will have to face Canada, Lithuania and Australia in the toughest group for any team in Round 1.

    Iran (FIBA Ranking: 27)

    The Iranian national team has had limited success on the international stage but they have been a regular participant in the World Cup since 2010. Standing out in a deep, veteran squad are Hamed Haddadi and 36-year-old Samad Nikkhah Bahrami. Team Melli has been drawn with Spain, Puerto Rico and Tunisia in Group C.

    Japan (FIBA Ranking: 48)

    Japan has one of the most successful basketball programs in Asia but has defeated only five countries in global tourneys (Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, Paraguay and Senegal), while they have never posted a win over a European nation. Japan earned a spot at the World Cup on its own for the first time since 1998 through Asian qualifiers and the current roster is probably the most complete the country has ever had.

    Rui Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe and naturalized American center Nick Fazekas are expected to compete in China in what can potentially be Japan’s best showing at the international level. Hachimura became the first Japanese first-round draft pick when he was selected No. 9 overall by the Wizards this summer, while Watanabe played for the Grizzlies on a two-way contract last year and looks ready to take the next step in his development. The 34-year-old Fazekas meanwhile was drafted as the No. 32 overall by the Mavs in 2007, appearing in 26 NBA games in his rookie season.

    Argentinian coach Julio Lamas is optimistic about Japan’s chances in the tournament even though they play in Group E against USA, Turkey and Czech Republic. I do believe that Japan will surprise a lot of people but it’s hard to see them advancing past the first round unless they upset Turkey.

    New Zealand (FIBA Ranking: 38)

    The Tall Blacks will count on Tom Abercrombie, Jarrod Kenny, Alex Pledger, Rob Loe, Isaac Fotu and the Webster brothers, as most of the roster participated in the previous World Cup as well. The New Zealanders are lethal from the behind the arc but lack size and athleticism and they will really miss the presence of Steven Adams. They will play the first round of the group phase in Nanjing alongside Greece, Brazil and Montenegro.

    Philippines (FIBA Ranking: 31)

    The Philippines are making their second straight appearance in the World Cup where they are set to face Serbia, Italy and Angola. The Philippines Basketball Federation was optimistic about Jordan Clarkson being allowed by FIBA to play alongside Andray Blatche, claiming that his Filipino heritage is enough to make him eligible, but that scenario didn’t materialize and the team will have to count on Gabe Norwood, Japeth Aguilar and five-time PBA MVP June Mar Fajardo.

    Blatche’s health is a concern as he still has some extra pounds but Philippines should be fun as they are a nation that really loves basketball. In four years they will co-host the next FIBA Basketball World Cup, sharing the honors with Japan and Indonesia.

    Middle of the Pack

    Montenegro (FIBA Ranking: 28)

    Montenegro joins the Czech Republic in making their FIBA Basketball World Cup debut in China and they are being led by no other than Magic center Nikola Vucevic, who is fresh off a career year and a new $100 million deal that will keep him in Orlando for the next five years. Bojan Dubljevic, who plays in Spain for Valencia, scored 18.2 points per game in six qualifiers, the third highest average amongst European players, while his 61.5 field goal percentage was the highest amongst European forwards.

    Montenegro is coached by Zvezdan Mitrovic, who has had a lot of success at the European level, winning the French League with Monaco for three straight years before moving to coach ASVEL. He is one of the few coaches that wants to play at a slow tempo in order to take advantage of Vucevic’s dominance but in order to advance to the Second Round, Montenegro will need to upset Greece or Brazil in Group F where New Zealand also participates.

    Czech Republic (FIBA Ranking: 24)

    The Czechs have been up and down in recent years, making their return to the EuroBasket in 2013 after missing the previous two tournaments and then finishing seventh in 2015 and just missing out on their first-ever appearance at the Olympics. After a disappointing 20th-place finish at the 2017 EuroBasket, the team rebounded with a strong FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers campaign that will allow them to make their debut at the World Cup.

    Tomas Satoransky is the leader of a squad that will be missing former first round pick Jan Vesely, who is still rehabbing from his knee injury. The Czechs will open their Group E campaign at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center against the United States in a group where they will have to battle Turkey and Japan for the second place.

    Nigeria (FIBA Ranking: 33)

    The Nigerian Men’s Basketball Team is the top-ranked team in Africa and went undefeated while qualifying for the upcoming FIBA World Cup. Still they are in danger of not being able to play in the tournament, as the Nigerian Ministry of Sports had not yet released the money necessary for the team to travel to Beijing up until a couple days ago.

    This is an extremely talented group of players that includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Chimezie Metu, Josh Okogie and former NBAers Ike Diogu and Ekpe Udoh, but it is still a developing basketball team. Alexander Nwora, the mens basketball coach at Erie Community College in NJCAA, gets to coach his son Jordan Nwora, a junior at Louisville and ACC’s Most-Improved Player this year. Nigeria is currently slated to be a part of Group B in the World Cup bracket alongside Russia, Argentina and Korea and I don’t expect them to get out of the group stage.

    Poland (FIBA Ranking: 25)

    Poland’s basketball team booked its place at the World Cup for the first time in 52 years, while it will only be second time the team has made it to the grand stage. The team is being coached by former Maine Red Claws head coach Mike Taylor, with naturalized American guard A.J. Slaughter leading their backcourt. This is a team with a low ceiling but they were lucky to fall in Group A with China, Côte d’Ivoire and Venezuela, making them almost a lock to advance to the next stage.

    Tunisia (FIBA Ranking: 51)

    The reigning African champions are set to make their first World Cup appearance since 2010 and they will face Spain, Puerto Rico and Iran in Group C in the city of Guangzhou. The roster’s average age is at 32 years old with only a couple players younger than 30. Former Mavs center Salah Mejri and former UCLA sharpshooter Michael Roll will be the anchors of a squad that hopes to turn some heads in the tournament.

    China (FIBA Ranking: 30)

    China has traditionally been the basketball powerhouse in Asia and the team has embarked on an intense series of training camps and preparation games ahead of the tournament. Former Bucks first-round pick Yi Jianlian is fresh off leading the Guangdong Southern Tigers to a sweep of the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the 2019 Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) Finals to clinch the team’s ninth title, while former Rocket Zhou Qi will provide some much-needed size.

    China opens their World Cup against Cote d’Ivoire on August 31st before taking on Poland two days after. They finish group play opposite Venezuela on September 4th, with all Group A fixtures held at the Wukesong Sport Center in the capital city of Beijing.

    That’s all for Part 1 of our World Cup preview, thank you for taking a look and please make sure to check us again next week when we break down the remaining top teams that will compete for a medal in China. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.

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