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The Olympics are less than two weeks away and today we present part two in our 12-team preview of the 2016 Rio Games: Croatia
Croatia is part of a competitive Group B, which features several teams that have a fighting chance to pursue a medal. Whichever team comes out on top of Group B after the preliminary stage will position themselves with the best chance to reach the Gold Medal Game and Croatia hopes to find themselves in a good spot after the first round.
Before we dive into Croatia’s 2016 Olympic roster, let’s take a brief look back at what Croatia has done in the past leading up to this year.
Croatia, like Lithuania, who we previewed in part one of our series, first appeared in the Olympics as an independent nation in 1992, one year after the nation declared its independence from Yugoslavia.
’92 was Croatia’s best Olympic performance, as they reached the Gold Medal Game led by Dražen Petrović, but would fall to the “Dream Team” in Barcelona by a score of 117-85, finishing with the Silver Medal. Croatia went 6-2 in Barcelona in ’92 and both of their losses came against the United States. It had to be an amazing time to be in Croatia, as the newly formed nation was already on the cusp of being crowned champions within one year of its independence.
Petrović’s passing in ’93 was a devastating blow to the nation, as he died at just 28 years old in a car accident, and it was not only devastating to the hearts and souls of fans throughout the nation, who lost an Olympic hero, but Croatia’s National Basketball Team was never really the same after his untimely death.
Since ’92, Croatian Basketball has been striving to return to glory. Croatia appeared in the ’96 Games in Atlanta, reaching the knockout stage, but lost in the quarterfinals against Australia. They would finish seventh with a record of 4-4.
Croatia missed out on the next two Summer Olympics, but returned in the Beijing Games in 2008. Croatia would fare slightly better than their prior performance from 12 years earlier, but lost in the quarterfinals to Spain. They would finish in sixth place with a record of 3-3.
Croatia failed to make the Olympics in 2012.
It was far from a guarantee that Croatia would even have a spot in the Olympics in 2016, as the squad had to go through a difficult road to get to this point in early July.
Croatia was one of six teams in the FIBA Qualifying Tournament with a chance to make it out of the Italy region and secure a spot in Rio.
Croatia lost its first match in the tournament to the host nation, Italy, and was one loss away from being eliminated.
They went on to win three straight matches against Tunisia, Greece, and Italy in the tournament final, stunning the host nation in front of their home crowd with an 84-78 overtime victory to secure a spot in Rio.
Croatia was the biggest surprise of any of the teams to make the cut, as they had to get through the likes of Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Italy’s duo of Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli, a task that not many believed the young Croatian squad could handle.
It was those three do-or-die wins that propelled Croatia to where they are now with a chance to win a medal.
Let’s take a look at some of the names of Team Croatia, who made it through that difficult road to Rio and now look forward to the challenge of bringing their nation its second medal in men’s basketball.
The scoring leader for Croatia is Bojan Bogdanovic, who has spent the last two seasons in the NBA as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. The 27-year-old averaged ten points per game, shooting 37 percent from three-point range in his first two NBA seasons.
Bogdanovic is asked to carry much more of the load for his home country in international play and did an admirable job of that in the 2016 FIBA Qualifying Tournament, as he averaged 24 points per game in the four games in Italy to help lead his team to secure a spot in the Olympics.
Bogdanovic now has a chance to see if he can build off of his impressive qualifying tournament performance and carry that over to Rio to help his team in pursuit of a medal.
The other high-profile name on the roster is 22-year-old center Dario Saric. Despite Bogdanovic leading the way in scoring, it was Saric who was named MVP of the qualifying tournament, as the rising star averaged 14 points and ten rebounds per game.
Saric was drafted 12th overall by the Orlando Magic in 2014 and was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Elfrid Payton. Saric recently signed with the Sixers after playing overseas for the last two years and will be part of a young, rebuilding team, but for now his focus is set on Rio.
The one-two punch of Bogdanovic and Saric will be the two most recognizable names on the squad, but a couple other key players include a pair of guards, Krunoslav Simon, 31, who scored 21 points in the qualifying tournament final, and Mario Hezonja, 21, who was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic.
If Croatia is going to make a run in Rio, they will need a concentrated team effort beyond the stellar play of their top two stars, but they proved in Italy that they are not a team to be taken lightly.
The Road to A Medal
As we mentioned in our Lithuania preview, it won’t be easy for any team aside from the United States to claim a medal. There are several evenly matched teams on both sides of the bracket.
Croatia is ranked 12th by FIBA’S world rankings, making them ninth-highest of the 12 teams heading to Rio.
However, they are not far behind France (5th,) Serbia (6th) and Australia (11th,) who could all be potential opponents in the knockout round.
Argentina (4th) and Brazil (9th,) who are also in Group B with Croatia, will each play head-to-head matches in the preliminary stage and neither of the two South American teams have played as well as their ranking would indicate over the last year.
When looking at Group B, Spain and Lithuania are widely regarded as the top two teams with a chance to face the U.S. in the Gold Medal Game. Spain is the favorite, but Lithuania is not far behind.
Croatia appears to be one of three teams that will be fighting for the other two spots in the knockout stage from Group B.
Nigeria is the only team of the six nations in Group B that most consider to have very little hopes of advancing past group play.
Croatia, Argentina, and the host country, Brazil appear to be the three teams fighting for those two other spots behind Spain and Lithuania.
What is interesting about the way the bracket plays out is that the team that finishes in second place at the end of group play actually has a tougher road ahead than the team that finishes in third place in Group B because a second-place finish in Group B inevitably sets up for a semifinal match against the juggernaut, Team USA.
Whichever team finishes fourth in Group B would face the top seed in Group A, which we all assume will be the U.S. in the first round of the knockout stage.
If Croatia can place first (which would be a huge underdog story and would require upsets of Lithuania and/or Spain) or if Croatia can finish third in group play, they have a realistic shot at getting through the field without having to face the United States until potentially the Gold Medal Game.
Granted, it is unlikely that Croatia can make it that far, but the team is talented enough that it would not be out of the question.
My prediction for Croatia is that they will go 3-2 in group play, losing to Spain and Lithuania, and will advance to the quarterfinals with the third seed in Group B.
The fortunate aspect of finishing third in Group B would be that they would not have to face the U.S. in the semifinal round if they can make it that far. However, my belief is that Croatia will lose to the second seed from Group A in the first stage of the knockout round. In the coming days, I’ll preview the remaining ten teams and will reveal who that team will be.
Just to recap for those who did not see our Lithuania preview, I have Lithuania finishing second in the preliminary stage in Group B and going on to lose to Team USA in the semifinal round. At the conclusion of the 12-team preview, just before the games begin on Aug. 6, we’ll include full predictions for all 12 nations, which teams earn medals, and how the full bracket plays out.
Tomorrow we’ll take a look at a team on the other side of the bracket, preparing to face USA Basketball in an exhibition game: Venezuela.