Friday, July 22, 2011

FIBA U19 World Championship -- Wrapping Up

Final Standings & Some Possession-Based Stats
I had a few minutes to process the balance of the U19 WC box scores -- the tournament used 62 games to decide places #1 through #16. The usual quota of paradoxes and quirks surface when Team USA competes in a tournament with this particular format...

15S. Korea230.4000.961.11-0.1683.2

In addition to the usual wins/losses/winning percentages, I tracked offensive and defensive efficiency (and Oliver's four factors...some references below) and pace (possessions per 40 minutes). In FIBA tournaments, wins and losses (and winning percentage) will not necessarily track with the place finishes. A 16 team field will typically have two phases of round robin play (as they narrow the field -- note that teams placing #9 - #16 played fewer games than those placing #1 - #8) followed by a series of games which eliminate half of the remaining field from gold medal consideration. Given the format, oddities abound...

Timing is Everything
Note that two teams finished with 7-2 records. Lithuania lost their first U19 Tournament game (to Croatia) and then their fifth game (to the USA). After losing the fifth game, they ran off three successive wins to find themselves in the finals facing Serbia, a team they had already beaten in their fourth game -- by 17. Team USA ran off five straight wins, lost (their) games #6 and #7, and could do no better than a fifth place finish. They had to beat the strongest team, Australia (according to the Medal Round seed), from the other half of the field to take fifth. Losing in the quarter finals made all the difference, as that play began the elimination phase of the tournament. Lithuania took a loss in each of the preliminary (round robin) rounds, the consequence of which was a #3 seed in the (Group F) bracket going into the quarter final round.

Location, Location, Location?!?
One of the more repeated comments from on site observers was the large and partisan crowds from Lithuania, one of the three former Baltic Republic members of the Soviet Union, which flooded into Latvia (another of the former Soviet Union Baltic Republics) to cheer on their team as the video below documents.

The giant playing for Canada (in white) by the way, is Huntington Prep's Sim Bhullar, an Xavier commitment for 2012-13.

That six of the 16 teams in the field hailed from Europe (with three, the host plus Lithuania and Russia from Eastern Europs) should not surprise, nor should the fact that five of the six teams advanced to the Quarter Final Round and that three advanced to the Semi Final Round. After all, of the last nine teams to medal in the last three U19 World Championships (the tournaments held in 2007 in Serbia, 2009 in New Zealand and 2011 in Latvia), seven have been European -- Serbia twice, the others were France, Croatia, Greece, Lithuania and Russia. The other two medalists? Team USA. Had the tournament been held in Cincinnati and Louisville there is no doubt Team USA would have medaled (the onus of winning a pressure game in a strange environment would have been on the Russians), but would they have beaten Lithuania? Maybe, maybe not.

X's & O's or Jimmys & Joes?
After digesting Luke Winn's breakdown of 17 players from six National Teams for Sports Illustrated, FIBA's interview with George Raveling, long-time AAU power broker, now Nike's Director for International Basketball, who was in Riga for the U19 Championships ("The world is catching up...") and well publicized snubs endured by USA Basketball of the 27 U19 invitees who declined invitations to tryout (Kentucky's three players may have attracted the most media notice, but they covered the other 24 or so bballers who also slighted USA Basketball), the progression to Andy Katz's tournament wrap/analysis of what went wrong ("lack of experience") is fairly painless. Common sense (ie common knowledge) can betray us sometimes, as the table at top suggests the problem was not lack of offensive/defensive efficiency (signs of team cohesion). The Croatia game had "trap game" written all over it. Coming at the end of the second preliminary round, and after an overtime win over Lithuania (a revenge win and the game which locked up the Group F top seed for Team USA) the American squad had locked up the #1 seed going into the Quarter Final Round.

The staff did not run through a practice on the off day between the Croatia and Russia games, a decision which no doubt played into the American's spotty three point defense (the Russians were 12-29 from beyond the arc). In both the Croatian and Russian games the Americans "lost" the first and second periods, an indication they were not prepared to play. And in both games, the staff turned to Jeremy Lamb to kick start the offense in the third period, a strategy the Russians had to know to expect. Though Lamb was named to the All Tournament Team, he was unable to carry the team in those two games. As the successes of U16/U17 coach Don Showalter and Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski suggest, continuity of the squad may be a bit less important than continuity of the coaching staff, especially the Head Coach.

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