Last Thursday night, Creighton center Gregory Echenique and the Venezuela National Team played their final “friendly” in preparation for the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament in Mar del Plata Argentina that starts on Tuesday. They were down 18 points at one point and ended up losing 77-73 to Argentina, a team that will undoubtedly be the favorite heading into the qualifier.
The four point loss is a far cry from the 106-53 beating that Argentina gave Venezuela just a few weeks ago, showcasing just how far Venezuela has come this summer under former NBA head coach Eric Musselman.
Since early July, Echenique has been training with Venezuela to represent his home country and the opportunity to do one thing — make it to the Olympics. They face long odds and will need to pull off some upsets to get there.
How does qualifying work?
FIBA is the governing body that qualifies basketball teams to the Olympics. The major regions of the world each hold qualifying tournaments, with the winners earning bids to the Olympics:
- Africa Championships — 1 team
- Oceana Championships — 1 team
- Europe Championships — 2 teams
- Asia Championships — 1 team
- Americas Championships — 2 teams
- Host team — Great Britain
- World Championships qualifier — United States
The FIBA Americas qualifier includes both North and South America. By virtue of the United States winning the FIBA World Championships last summer, they have already qualified for the Olympics and as a result, they withdrew from the Americas Championship. That freed up one additional spot in the tournament, a lucky break for Venezuela.
Three teams from the Americas will earn Olympic bids — the two regular bids, plus the U.S. bid from the World Championships. That is also a lucky break for Venezuela.
Ten teams make up the field in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Among those ten teams are the top three finishers from the 2010 South America Basketball Championship. Venezuela finished fourth in that tourney, which ordinarily would mean their Olympic dream would have died before it really began. But because Argentina — who finished second — is the host nation, they get an automatic invite. Thus, a fourth South American team got an invite, meaning Venezuela received a bid. And by virtue of the United States withdrawing, a fifth South American team got a bid — Paraguay, who finished fifth in the South America Basketball Championship.
The 10 teams taking part:
South American Sub-Zone (South American Basketball Championship 2010):
North America Sub-Zone:
Central American and Caribbean Zone (Top 4 from 2010 Centrobasket tournament):
- Dominican Republic
- Puerto Rico
What does the schedule look like?
The ten teams are split into two groups of five that start out in pool play. The teams were split in five groups of two based on world rankings and then one of the two were randomly picked to go in one group while the other automatically went into the other group to try and make the competition even.
For example, Argentina (3) and Brazil (16) were in one group. Brazil was randomly chosen to be in Pool A; Argentina was then automatically put into Pool B.
Venezuela (22), assigned to Pool A, got a break by winding up there. The lower-ranked team in each of the other four groups joins them in that pool: Brazil (16), Canada (23), Dominican Republic (30) and Cuba (NR).
Pool B consists of Argentina (3), Puerto Rico (15), Uruguay (25), Panama (28) and Paraguay (NR)
Teams will play four games in five days. The top four teams in each pool advance to the Quarterfinal round, with one team in each being eliminated. Here is Echenique and the Venezuela National Team’s schedule this week:
- Tuesday, August 30th: vs. Brazil, Noon (CST)
- Wednesday, August 31st: vs. Dominican Republic, 9:30 a.m. (CST)
- Thursday, September 1st: vs. Cuba, Noon (CST)
- Saturday, September 3rd: vs. Canada, 9:30 a.m. (CST)
If Venezuela finishes in the top four of their pool, a schedule of four more games against the top four from the other pool will be played from September 5-8.
The semifinal and final rounds are scheduled for September 10th and 11th. The top two teams will qualify for the Olympics. Games will also be played for fifth place due to the “Last Chance Qualifier” we will talk about later.
What are Venezuela’s chances?
Based on world rankings, Venezuela actually sits as the fourth best team in the tournament behind Argentina, Puerto Rico and Brazil.
Argentina is by far the best team in the bunch with NBA players Manu Ginobili (Spurs), Carlos Delfino (Bucks), Andres Nocioni (76ers) and Luis Scola (Rockets). They went 7-0 in their “friendlies” against many of the other teams in the qualifier.
Brazil only has one NBA player on their roster (Tiago Splitter of the Spurs) but they have been playing together for quite a while. They crushed Wichita State while the Shockers were in Brazil on their foreign trip 87-61, a game Brazil played without five of their better players. Still, make of that what you will.
Puerto Rico has been using an A team and a B team during their training, similar to what the United States has done in recent years. In their “friendlies” leading up to the qualifier this past weekend, they defeated Canada and the Dominican Republic before losing to Brazil in their final exhibition game.
A dark horse in this tournament could be the Dominican Republic. Led by Kentucky head coach John Calipari, the Dominican Republic will be a serious contender with its trio of NBA’ers (Al Horford, Cisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva)
One interesting thing leading up to the qualifying tournament is that many of the teams, including Venezuela, have had a chance to play each other once, twice or even three times in the past month during their training. It will now come down to this opportunity. Venezuela has had a chance to make adjustments against teams they struggled against, so it will be interesting to watch and see if those adjustments make a difference in the outcome of the games.
How can I follow these games?
The FIBA Americas games will be broadcast across the globe. Here in the United States, they will be available on ESPN Deportes and streamed online through ESPN3.com. Check the schedule above to see when you can watch Echenique and the Venezuela National Team.
The Mar Del Plata 2011 website will have all the information regarding the schedules, recaps and other information about the qualifier. Games for the Olympic qualifier will be played at Polideportivo Islas Malvinas, which holds more than 8,000 spectators and was originally built for the Pan American Games in 1995.
Last Chance Qualifier
If the Venezuela National Team does not qualify for the Olympics in Argentina, they may have one more chance to qualify. After all of the FIBA regional qualifying championships have been decided, there is a last chance qualifier that will happen July 2-8, 2012. The stipulation in this one is that in order to be a part of this qualifier from the Americas, the team has to finish 3rd, 4th or 5th in Argentina.
As a result, Echenique may have a busy summer next year as well — whether it’s playing in the last chance qualifier for the Olympics, or the actual Olympics in London from July 27 to August 12.
One thing is for sure: this week’s action will offer an exciting glimpse into how Gregory has evolved over the summer after the battles of international competition.