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As USA Basketball gets ready for its fourth tune-up game in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics, let’s take a look at their upcoming opponent: Venezuela.
Venezuela will have some stiff competition, including USA, and before we take a look at their roster, let’s go back in time and review the history of Venezuelan basketball.
In terms of American sports, Venezuela is most associated with baseball, as the South American nation has produced legends like Omar Vizquel and Miguel Cabrera, but basketball has been steadily rising in popularity and the national team has gotten better and better over recent years.
It’s been a long and slow process by which the sport has gained momentum in Venezuela. It was first introduced to the nation in the 1920s when workers of the American oil industry arrived.
In the 1930s, the sport was already more popular in neighboring Colombia and it was starting to work its way into more Venezuelan cities.
The first professional teams were formed in 1935 in Caracas and other cites throughout the west-central region of the country. 13 years later, in 1948, the Venezuelan Basketball Federation was born.
In 1955, Venezuela appeared in the FIBA South American Championship for Men for the first time. They were eliminated in the preliminary round and would suffer the same fate five more times until 1989, when they reached the final round of the tournament for the first time, but would finish fourth out of nine teams.
In 1991, Venezuela had its best tournament performance in the history of the nation, emerging as the winners of the South American Championship for Men.
It was Venezuela’s impressive performance in 1991 that gave them the opportunity to play in their first Olympic tournament in the history of the nation, as they appeared in Barcelona in 1992. They would go 1-4 in the preliminary round, defeating China for their only win of the first stage.
Venezuela would finish 11th out of 12 teams, ending with a record of 2-5, as they lost to Spain in the Group B semi-final round and went on to defeat China for the second time to avoid finishing in last place.
After 22 years of wandering in the international basketball desert, Venezuela won the South American Championship for the second time in 2014.
The Road to Rio
Venezuela is finally making its second Olympic appearance, thanks to an impressive performance in the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
It was quite the Cinderella story in September of last year, as the underdogs emerged victorious among nine other American teams, ranging from Canada in the north to Brazil in the south.
They started 2-0 in the tournament, beating Cuba and Puerto Rico, but lost the next two games to Canada and Argentina. They just made the cut to advance past the preliminary round with a record of 2-2.
In the second round of the tournament, Venezuela got off to a good start, defeating the Dominican Republic, but lost its next two games to Mexico and Uruguay, falling to 3-4 on the tournament.
It was do-or-die from that point on. Venezuela survived with a much-needed win over Panama to reach the semi-final round, where they would take on a tough Canadian team.
Venezuela squeaked out a 79-78 upset to stun Canada and reach the final to face the heavy favorite, Argentina, who was 8-1 in the tournament up to that point.
Once again, Venezuela pulled off an upset much to the shock of the basketball community, defeating Argentina 76-71 and securing their second Olympic berth in the history of the nation.
It was one of the greatest highlights of Venezuelan basketball in the 90-plus years since the sport was first introduced to the nation.
Some may have called Venezuela’s unexpected run in the tournament “a fluke.” Some would say Argentina and Canada “blew it.”
However, the Venezuelan National Team was quick to respond to that criticism in the 2016 South American Championship for Men in late-June and early-July of this year.
Venezuela swept through all six games against Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil,winning the tournament final over the host of the 2016 Olympics on July 2.
If there were any questions as to whether or not Venezuela belonged in the Olympics, they put those to rest, proving they were the dominant force of South American countries.
Since that tournament ended in early-July, Venezuela played two tune up games against Spain and lost both games, proving they have some work to do if they’re going to catch up to the back-to-back Silver Medal-winners.
It will be interesting to see how they stack up against Team USA on Friday night, who dominated China by 99 combined points in two games, as the Venezuelan Men’s National Team lost by 15 in their first exhibition match against Spain, keeping it interesting, but was blown out in the second game, losing by 36.
UPDATE: Greivis Vazquez, the only NBA player on Venezuela’s roster will not participate in the Rio Games.
Although Vazquez is the most recognizable name on the roster, Heissler Guillent is a player to watch. The 29-year-old point guard helped Venezuela win the FIBA Americas Championship last year, scoring 19 points in the semi-final and 15 in the final.
What should give Venezuela some hope heading into Rio is that those two players did not participate in the 2016 South American Championship for Men, but they still went undefeated in the six games.
Another name to keep an eye on for Venezuela in the Rio Games is 30-year-old guard Gregory Vargas, who was MVP of the tournament earlier this July, scoring 21 points in the championship and averaging 13 points and four assists per game over the six games.
Gregory’s older brother, Jose Vargas, 34, is also a key player on the team. The shooting guard averaged 11 points and 3 assists in the South American Championship, and the brothers will be a big part of Venezuela’s rotation in Rio.
A few other fan favorites include Dwight Lewis-Padron, John Cox, and Nestor Colmaneres.
Lewis-Padron, a 6’6″ forward, has a connection with USA Basketball’s DeMar DeRozan, as the two were teammates at USC in 2008-2009 and that will be one of the stories whenever the two teams meet, including on Friday night in Chicago.
Cox, a 35-year-old guard, has played professionally in France since 2005 and will be one of the leaders of Team Venezuela. It’d be fair to say basketball runs in his family, as the Venezuelan guard is NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s cousin.
Colmaneres, a 28-year-old power forward, was a key player in Venezuela’s FIBA Americas Championship victory in 2015, averaging 10 points and six rebounds per game.
Those are some of the players to keep an eye on when Venezuela makes its second Olympic appearance in Rio this August.
What to Expect in Rio
As demonstrated by its roster, Venezuela does not have the most familiar names and is not loaded with NBA talent.
Venezuela is ranked 22nd in FIBA’s world rankings, making them the second-lowest ranked team of the 12 heading to Rio, below 13th-ranked China and three spots ahead of Nigeria.
Their great team play and impressive performances over the last three years are reasons why they should not be taken lightly by any opponent, but the odds will be stacked against them in Rio.
At least one positive aspect will be that they will have a large contingent of home fans traveling to neighboring Brazil to support their team and perhaps that will give them a home court advantage of sorts.
Venezuela is in a tough Group A featuring USA, France, Serbia, China, and Australia.
Obviously Team USA is the clear-cut favorite to finish first in group play and will more than likely go on to win the Gold Medal for the third-straight time.
France, Serbia, and Australia are all competitive teams and will be tough opponents for Venezuela.
We may see a similar outcome to what Venezuela did in 1992, their only other Olympic appearance, when both of their two wins came against China.
However, Venezuela proved over the last two years that they can pull off some upsets and it would not be out of the realm of possibility for the South American nation to defeat France, Serbia, or Australia.
It wouldn’t be the best bet, but perhaps Venezuela can get through the preliminary round and advance to the knockout stage.
My prediction for Venezuela in Rio is that they will go 1-4 in Group Play, only winning against China. I expect Venezuela to keep all three games against Serbia, France, and Australia competitive, but believe they will fall short of making the cut to advance to the knockout stage.
That doesn’t mean fans should count them out, though. They weren’t expected to make it this far in the first place. Perhaps the next chapter of their Cinderella story is about to begin.
As we approach the Rio Games, which begin Aug. 6, we’ll preview the remaining nine teams and give our predictions for how the bracket unfolds.