USA Basketball won’t have to wait long for intrigue at the Tokyo Olympics.
The U.S. men will face France in one of its group games, and the U.S. women were placed in the same group as host Japan when the draw for the rescheduled Tokyo Games was held Tuesday. The draw took place in Mies, Switzerland, at FIBA headquarters.
The U.S. men will also face Iran and the winner of the qualifying tournament in Victoria, Canada, as its other Group A rivals. The last time the Americans played France was in 2019 in the quarterfinals of the Basketball World Cup in China — when France prevailed to end the U.S. medal hopes.
“It’s exciting to learn more about the Olympic schedule and who our preliminary round opponents will be in Tokyo,” U.S. men’s coach Gregg Popovich said. “The three Olympic preliminary groups appear well balanced, and there are a good number of teams who have legitimate shots at the gold medal in Tokyo.”
The other men’s pairings saw Australia, Nigeria and the winners of qualifying tournaments in Split, Croatia, and Belgrade, Serbia, in Group B — with Japan, Argentina, Spain and the winner of a qualifying tournament in Kaunas, Lithuania, in Group C.
The U.S. men are seeking a fourth consecutive gold medal. The Tokyo Games begin July 23, one day after the NBA says is the last possible date for this season’s NBA Finals. USA Basketball will have NBA players available for its team, though the roster won’t likely be finalized until June at the earliest and will undoubtedly hinge on how deep some players like LeBron James go into the post-season .
The games were scheduled from last year, becoming the first Olympics to be postponed, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has prompted some to suggest they will not — or even should not — happen this summer either.
“Our collaboration with the NBA and the World Health Organization will ensure that the latest know-how is used for the protection of basketball players, being constantly shared with the IOC and Tokyo organizers,” FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis said.
For the men’s field, Group C seems like the toughest; Spain beat Argentina for the gold medal at the last World Cup, and Lithuania or Slovenia could emerge from qualifying to join that group as well.
The U.S. women will be coached by Dawn Staley. The Americans are going for a seventh consecutive Olympic title — and if they make it to Tokyo, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi may become the first Americans to play on five gold-medal basketball teams.
The U.S. women are headed to Group B, along with Nigeria, France and host Japan. Group A includes South Korea, Serbia, Canada and Spain. Group C is composed of Australia, Puerto Rico, China and Belgium.
Each team plays the other teams in its group once, so all nations have three opening-round games. The top two finishers from each group, along with the two best third-place teams, move on to the quarterfinals.
FIBA Americas executive director Carlos Alves said the tournaments and events that basketball’s governing body has pulled off over the past few months show that “with the right plan, with the right protocols” games can be played safely.
And he expressed confidence that the Tokyo Games will occur.
“I think the question is, will we be in position to have fans in Tokyo? And that moves by the day, if not by the hour,” Alves said. “Things go south, north, we don’t know. But as far as the athletes, the national teams in the tournament, both men and women? Absolutely.”
There are 24 teams left in the race for the four remaining men's spots. Those will be decided in tournaments scheduled to take place between June 29 and July 4, while the NBA playoffs will still be happening.
And since this NBA season started later than usual, some top international players — such as Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets — might be busy with playoff games at the same time.
Serbia will play host to the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Italy and Senegal. Lithuania will play host to South Korea, Venezuela, Poland, Slovenia and Angola. Croatia will play host to Germany, Russia, Mexico, Tunisia and Brazil. And Canada will play host to Greece, China, Uruguay, Turkey and the Czech Republic.
All four of those qualifiers will be winner-take-all, one nation from each of those events advancing to the Tokyo Games.
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press