July 25, 2015

Basketball's Road to Rio 2016

Almost all national basketball leagues are over, or are wrapping up. You know what that means? If you're following non-NBA basketball, that means it's time for the summer of international hoops: or more importantly, the last summer of international hoops as we know it. If you're following the NBA, well more, crazy free agency news, but that's why you came here for.

As every follower of international basketball should know by now, this is the last summer where the qualification to the Olympics will be done this way. In Tokyo 2020, the qualification system would be a lot different, which we would get to later. Beginning with the FIBA Oceania Championship in August 20 (or less than a month from now) until the final of the FIBA Asia Championship in October 3, there'd only be three days where there aren't any qualification games being played.

Before we all go nostalgic with the current means of qualification, let's give it its last hurrah by giving you a preview of all five men's continental championships/qualification tournaments. Or more importantly, the tournament formats, and when you know that you have almost-zero chance in qualifying to the next round.


ICYMI, the FIBA Africa Championship had been renamed into "AfroBasket" since 2007. Yep, but many people still call it as the"FIBA Africa Championship", or maybe "EuroBasket" just sounds better.

The AfroBasket just changed its format in 2013. It's similar to the tournament format of FIBA's under-age tournaments, where there are four groups of four teams, every team qualifies to the next round, and the knockout round is a single-elimination cutthroat.

What's good (or bad) about this is that it gives crappy teams a free pass to the next round. The good part is that they could collect themselves and prove that the prelims wasn't real, and the bad is that they could take out a good team on a bad night. Egypt is the epitome of this, when they went 0-3 in the prelims, then shocked defending champs and group winners Tunisia in the Round of 16 all the way to the final where they lost to continental giants Angola.

Verdict: They'd still be using the same format this year, so the preliminary round is like three warm-up games before the real tournament begins. In theory, each prelim round team has an equal chance of winning.

FIBA Americas Championship

Amongst the five continental championships, the FIBA Americas Championship has the most stable formet, using the same format since 1995. There are ten teams divided equally into two groups, where the top 4 teams advance to the second round, where they face the other teams that made it in another round robin of matches. The top 4 teams from these eight teams qualify to the knockout stage.

In this format, it doesn't really matter how the groups were drawn; if the team advances to the second round, you'd still face the other group save for the doormat. So, it doesn't really matter if the groups were badly drawn; I don't think there was a chance that there were five strong teams and all of them were drawn into the same group.

Now, as for making it to the final round, finishing first in the prelims made it to the semifinals 19 out of 20 times (10 tournaments, 2 groups per tournament), or a 95% batting average (or should I say, field-goal percentage). The only prelim round winner that missed the bus was 1997 Canadian team (but of course) when finished first via a 3-team logjam, then lost all but one second round games, losing out on tiebreakers with four teams tied from fourth to seventh.

Finishing second has a 65% percentage, third 30% and fourth just 10% or just two instances. Those happened in 1997 when Canada's group-mate Puerto Rico finished 4th in the prelims then won all of its second round games to finish second, and in 2013 when the Dominican Republic finished fourth (actually tied for third but lost out on tiebreakers) then finished second in the second round.

Verdict: Finishing first almost guarantees you a semifinal berth unless the team loses all of its second round games, and has lost one prelim round game; finishing fourth is a death sentence unless the groups were truly outbalanced.

FIBA Asia Championship

The FIBA Asia Championship reformed its tournament format to mimic the now-abandoned 16-team Eurobasket format in 2009. Here, there are four groups of four, three advance to the second round, where two groups are merged. From these merged groups, the top four teams each advance to the knockout round.

The first two usages of this tournament saw the top two teams in each group advance to the quarterfinals, with the third placed teams not making it that far. It all changed in 2013 when FIBA Asia used a "pure draw", and Lebanon was suspended by FIBA, expelling them from competition. The latter meant all Group B teams, Lebanon's group, advancing to the second round, but only the topnotcher, Qatar, made it to the quarterfinals.

The Manila tournament was also infamous for Group C of China, Iran, Korea and Malaysia; mislabeled as the "Group of Death", the first three teams account for all of the championships since the Northern Consolidated-backed Philippine team that won in 1986. It's not a "Group of Death" since all 3 teams qualified to the second round, leaving poor Malaysia losing by an average of 67 points. With this impressive group also means there this shitty group, which is Group D. Only the topnotcher, Kazakhstan, made it out alive, and that's after losing all second round games. So our percentages are 100% for finishing first, 83% for finishing second, and 17% for finishing third.

Verdict: More convincing as the FIBA Americas Championship, because our sample size is small, and because of the tournament format: In FIBA Americas, four prelim round teams advance, and four second round teams advance; in FIBA Asia, three prelim round advance and four second round teams advance. This means that there's always a team from another group that'll make it even if they lose all of their second round games, and the teams from the other group had a 1.000 percentage against them and their group-mates. The drop-off from second to third is noticeable though, so if you're a coach, you gotta avoid finishing third in the prelims as much as possible (aside from finishing last and being eliminated outright).


Remember when I said "the now-abandoned 16-team Eurobasket format in 2009"? Well, the Europeans reformatted EuroBasket when it expanded to 24 teams, then they reformatted it anew for this year, well because the last previously-used format was long, drawn-out and bored a lot of people. Now there are four groups of six teams in the prelims, and the top four teams advance to the knockout stage.

This gives an immense amount of pressure in the Round of 16, as a loss here eliminates your Olympic dreams; a loss in the quarterfinals gives you another chance via the wild card tournament).

Verdict: In theory, all four teams that advance to the knockout stage have equal chances of winning, because there's only one group stage.

FIBA Oceania Championship

The FIBA Oceania Championship is the two-game series between Australia and New Zealand. The two teams play two games, and the team with the most points after two games wins. This format has been used twice: in 2009 and 2013 (they had a best-of-3 series for 2011, and for all other championships which had no other teams participating aside from these two teams).

So, would winning the first game would lead to a title? It's 50-50: in 2009, New Zealand lost the first game in Australia, but won in their home floor with a bigger margin, thus winning the title. In 2013, Australia won both games. Our percentages: Winning Game 1: 50%; winning Game 2: 100%.

Verdict: Winning the second game, not the first, just like in most two-legged ties, is the difference.

Again, this would be the last time at least perhaps until 2029 (FIBA is planning to use their new format for a decade) we'd be seeing a summer of international hoops. By 2017, qualification games would be done a lot FIFA, and there'd by qualifying games in the middle of the season as well. FIBA has already said there's a high chance of NBA players not playing in these qualification games at the middle of the season, so it could give us a wonky picture of how the national teams stack up.

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