Serbia and France are good enough to win men’s basketball medals at the Olympics. First, they have to get there.
The final three places in the 12-team field are on the line in the three Olympic Qualifying Tournaments next week. Serbia and France, who won silver and bronze two years ago in the Basketball World Cup, will be among the favorites to earn berths after falling short last summer.
The new format to fill out the Olympics has 18 countries still in the running for spots in Rio. Six teams will be in each tournament, and the three winners will be Brazil bound.
Some teams still trying to get there are better than a few who have already qualified. Four of the world’s top 10 will be competing, including France (5th), Serbia (6th), Turkey (8th) and Greece (10th).
The Serbs have a powerful team and home-court advantage as they try to lock up a spot that eluded them in last year’s EuroBasket.
“We still need to fine-tune our teamwork but that’s normal at this stage of preparations. We are going through this process together so that we will still be playing until the end of the OQT, and hopefully after that too,” coach Aleksandar Djordjevic told FIBA.com after his team won its three tuneup games.
Serbia hosts one tournament in Belgrade that also includes Angola and Puerto Ricoin Group A. The Czech Republic, Japan and Latvia are in Group B.
In Manila, Philippines, it’s: Turkey, Canada and Senegal in Group A; with France,New Zealand and the hosts in Group B.
The Turin, Italy field: Greece, Mexico and Iran in Group A; Italy, Croatia and Tunisiain Group B.
Each team will play the others in its group, with the top two finishers in each advancing to the semifinals. The tournament champions will then be drawn into the Olympic field, with two slated to end up in a group with the U.S.
A look at some top contenders:
SERBIA: The hosts swept a home-and-home with France and beat Greece, another top contender, in their warmup play. Serbia has one of Europe’s top point guards in Milos Teodosic and a top young prospect in Denver Nuggets All-Rookie selection Nikola Jokic, but will miss injured Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica and Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, who is a free agent.
PUERTO RICO: Longtime guards J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks and Carlos Arroyo should again provide the strength for the Puerto Ricans.
FRANCE: Tony Parker wants to cap his international career with an Olympic medal. The French failed to earn their chance playing on home soil last summer when Spain beat them in the Eurobasket semifinals, but stand a good chance now if they can hold on until the arrival of Nicolas Batum, who is an NBA free agent and won’t be available until after he signs a contract on July 7.
TURKEY: Their tough defense, anchored by NBA center Omer Asik in the middle, always gives the Turks a chance to stay in games. They gave the U.S. its toughest test in the 2014 Basketball World Cup.
CANADA: With Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins sitting out, the Canadians could regret not locking up a spot when they blew a late lead against Venezuela in last year’s FIBA Americas semifinals.
GREECE: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is a do-everything star and Sacramento’s Kosta Koufos a solid center for a Greek team that scored a pair of victories over Turkey during its pre-tournament schedule.
ITALY: The Italians haven’t reached the Olympics since winning silver in 2004. But they have plenty of shooting behind NBA players Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli and former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, a top coach in Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, and the backing of a home crowd to get them there this time.