Tuesday, July 5, 2011

FIBA U19 World Championship Preview -- USA & Lithuania

The Rematch...
The USA-Lithuania 2011, Part 2 will be one of the featured games in Riga Tuesday July 5. At the U15-U18 levels the USA men's teams are the presumptive favorites, and had these two squads not met in a pre-tournament exhibition match, most would probably assign Team USA the "favorite role" here. That 33 point loss on June 28 however, coupled with a 29 point loss on the 26th to the Lithuanian U20 team, gave a nasty jolt to USA hopes and expectations to repeat as the U19 champions in Latvia. Were those exhibition games simply growing pains for another mix-n-match national team selected through the two week tryout process, or a foreshadow of performance difficulties once the tournament got underway?

If the exhibition was wake up call to the Americans -- Team USA ran off four straight wins, three by double-digits -- the Lithuanians first outing in the FIBA U19 tournament, a 13 point 88-75 drubbing at the hands of Croatia, was a bucket of cold water. The Lithuanians have won three straight by margins of 53, 43 and 17.

With the cross over round robin play between Group C and Group D teams, both the Lithuanians and Americans have played Team Canada...


The margins suggest the exhibition win margin stands, and that Team USA will have an up stream swim against Team Lithuania.

Lineups, Rotations...
...Coach Hewitt has routinely gone 11-12 deep, using virtually every player on the bench. He has also tended to distribute the playing time in an even fashion, though in the most closely contested game, a two point win versus Team Serbia, Hewitt shortened his rotation by two (Jahlil Carson and Anthony Brown were DNP), and limited minutes for two others (Khyle Marshall and Meyers Leonard), effectively giving himself, despite having two starters in foul trouble, an eight man rotation. Coach Hewitt experimented with the starting five in the two Lithuanian exhibition games, but has settled on the same five for the FIBA tournament so far. The point is manned by Joe Jackson, a 6-0 guard out of Memphis University, while two Big East rising sophomores, Connecticut's 6-6 Jeremy Lamb and Villanova's 6-5 James Bell, take their spots on the wing. Who is the #2 guard and who is the small forward? Both wing spots seem to play interchangeably, Bell is reputed to defend a bit more aggressively while Lamb tends to take more three point attempts. Both rebound and chip in assists. Hewitt has Doug McDermott, a 6-7 forward out of Creighton at the #4 and 6-9 Patric Young, a bfc out of Florida at the #5. Though he will reach deep into the bench when the game is in hand, Michigan's 6-5 shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr tends to see time early, often in the first period and provides scoring from both inside and outside the three point line. 6-9 Tony Mitchell, a rising sophomore at North Texas along with Meyers Leonard, a 7-0 Illini split the rotation with Patric Young, though two of those three might be in simultaneously when Team USA needs more size under the basket. Look for Keith Appling (6-1, Michigan State) and Jahii Carson (5-11, Arizona State incoming freshman) to spell Jackson at the point. Jackson is a stud, and if the game is close Hewitt may decide to ride that horse home. Khyle Marshall, a 6-7 forward out of Butler has seen minutes in three of the four games so far.

Lithuania's Coach Kazys Maksvytis has tinkered with the starting five for each of the Team Lithuania's four FIBA U19 games, but count on 6-2 Vytenis Cizauskas to start in the backcourt, most likely the #1, with 6-7 forward Edgaras Ulanovas and 6-11 Jonas Valanciunas in the front court. Valanciunas, starter at the #5 and Cizauskas power the Lithuanian attack as an inside/outside combination. Maksvytis has also started 6-4 Doyydas Redikas and 6-4 Deidivas Pukis in the back court at times this tournament (and even if he does not start, expect them to see minutes). At 6-7 both Zygimantas Skucas and Rolandas Jakstas have started in the front court and wing. Again, start or no, both will see playing time, along with 6-6 Arnas Butkevicius, 6-8 Egidijus Mockevicius and 6-8 pf Tautvydas Sabonis.

By the Numbers, Offense & Defense...
...Team Lithuania has averaged 85.7 possessions through four tournament games, among the highest in the field. That is lower than the scorching pace set in their exhibition game with Team USA (about 93 possessions). 85+ possessions is no doubt due to the open game fostered by the large winning margins the Lithuanians have managed. Team USA has seen it's possesion rate drift up to 80 per game (average). A 90+ possession rate would be fatal for Team USA, as it implies a lot of missed field goal attempts (and few offensive rebounds). A possession rate in the 84+ range would not be shocking, but probably not a good sign for Team USA. A "Four Factors" comparison when Team Lithuania has the ball...

When Lithuania has the ball...
Lithuanian O53.320.239.634.2
American D37.219.128.730.8

The key for Team Lithuania is efficient scoring by Valanciunas and Cizauskas. Both have had cold stretches, but some combination of Sabonis, Skucas, Redikas and/or Ulanovas has been able to step in with shots and points. Team USA has been very good at defensing the shot, one of the better teams in the field at shutting down three point shooters (James Bell?), so this strength-on-strength matchup between the teams will be a critical indicator on who will control the flow of the game. The Lithuanians have been a bit lax with the ball (see turnover rate), but make up for that with strong offensive rebounding. The Americans have been strong on shutting down second chance opportunities, so we see another strengh-on-strength matchup. On the other hand, the Americans have not been especially aggressive at challenging for the ball (see their defensive turnover rate above), so though the Lithuanians are vulnerable, it is not clear that Team USA can exploit that weakness. The "Four Factors" look at Team USA's offense versus Lithuania's defense:

When the Americans have the ball...
USA O53.417.837.328.9
Lithuanian D41.318.425.225.7

This offensive/defensive lineup suggests there are two areas, turnover rates and getting to the line (FTA/FGA) that are consistent between Team USA's offense and Team Lithuania's defense. These areas will most likely not decide the game. Two of the other "factors", shooting efficiency and rebounding USA missed field goals, do clash, suggesting these will be the areas that will decide how easily the Americans can put points on the board. Team USA does a good job of scoring, and looks to a combination of Jackson, Lamb, Young, McDermott, Bell and Hardaway to provide inside and outside conversions. The team is not particularly effective slashing to the basket (out of an offensive set), and takes care of the ball -- they should get their shots off, but if they miss will they get that second chance to reset and shoot again?

...Assuming an average pace for the tournament field of about 77 and an average efficiency of about 101, the estimated pace would be in the neighborhood of 90 (not good news for the USA squad), with about a five or so point win for Team USA. There is, however, no question the field is extremely unbalanced and virtually certain that the random draw that assigned groups was not an even distribution of teams (remember the plethora of 2-1 teams in Group E?), so the projection should be taken with a very large grain of salt. The key may well be fouls, an issue in the USA-Lithuania exhibition. In addition to putting the Lithuanians on the line for additional scoring opportunities, a large foul imbalance would also put critical members of the American squad on the bench for potentially large stretches of the game. Not a good sign should that repeat from the first meeting. For the Lithuanians, another loss would give them (at least) two as the field is seeded for the medal rounds (no question the loser tomorrow will still qualify for the medal round), no doubt matching Team Lithuania with a relatively stronger quarter final opponent from Group E. This game should be a good measure on how far this U19 USA squad has come in the three weeks they have been together.

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