Despite wobbles, Team USA holds firm atop men's hoop rankings

Defense the focus as USA prepares for Argentina (0:51)

Paul George and DeAndre Jordan highlight the attention to defense Team USA has had in practice after their struggles the past three games. (0:51)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- There's no getting around it for your internationally known Committee (of One).

It was precisely 12 days ago in this cyberspace when we wrote that the United States would "romp to the gold" in Olympic men's basketball.

And we flat-out got it wrong.

Team USA is the only undefeated team left in the tournament at 5-0 ... but there has been precious little romping to date for the red, white and blue.

Yet there's a happy consolation for everyone in the wake of our original, less-than-flawless forecast: This tournament has flung so many curveballs at us already that we had to come back with an updated edition of ESPN.com's Olympic Hoops Power Rankings heading into Wednesday's quarterfinals.

So here, then, is our latest 1-to-12 diagnosis of the competition, with each country's original ranking in parentheses:


Close games in the Olympics for Team USA are not new. The new part is seeing Team USA scramble in the fourth quarter in three straight games, which suggests the group is making little progress in the wake of each scare.

Throughout their first few weeks together, several of the American stars spoke repeatedly about how much they enjoyed playing defense, but major slippage at the un-fun end against Australia, Serbia and France dropped them to a hard-to-fathom fifth overall in the competition in terms of defensive efficiency entering the medal round.

The alarm bells, not surprisingly, are thus ringing pretty loudly, amid a growing belief in basketball circles that this squad -- by all accounts far stronger than the group that dominated the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and still a 1-to-20 runaway favorite, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook -- could actually lose. I still say they end up grabbing gold, but it's looking more and more as if it'll have to be the offense that carries Team USA over the line.


It has been a while since the Committee (of One) missed on a team so badly. As one Aussie insider whispered to us after seeing the Boomers down at No. 8 when the tournament began: "These tournaments are won with heart and grit and you clearly underestimated how much this group has been building toward this for years."

Our informant went on to insist that no national team in the world wants a basketball medal more than the Aussies, who have never medaled in men's basketball. There's obviously no way to accurately measure that, but the inspiration behind the claim is easy to understand: Australia truly believes it never has had a better shot at a top-three spot after drubbing favored France in its Olympic opener and playing the United States so tough following an impressive win over Serbia.

Deep down, though, Australia has to be jittery as it heads into the first of Wednesday's four quarterfinals, because one off night (or morning) in the first game of the knockout round can ruin everything. Led by Patty Mills (20.5 PPG), Andrew Bogut (13.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.0 APG) and Matthew Dellavedova (8.6 APG), Australia had the third-most efficient offense and No. 2 defense in pool play. But it desperately needs at least one more win, specifically Wednesday over Lithuania, to truly hush any peaked-too-soon talk.

3. SPAIN (2)

In a tournament pleasantly (and unexpectedly) filled with surprises, Spain's 0-2 start scores as high on the shock meter as anything we've seen. Yet we couldn't bear to drop Pau Gasol & Co. more than a spot from our pre-Olympics ladder, because this is still the team that USA Basketball staffers privately fear the most.

It's not just Spain's pedigree that has the Americans' attention, either. A team routinely dismissed as too old, by yours truly as much as anyone, just beat Lithuania and Argentina by a combined 69 points after the stunning early slipups to Croatia and Brazil.

With brother Marc Gasol unavailable through injury, Pau has averaged nearly 20 and 9 and, at age 36, looks as dangerous internationally as ever. Group A was widely regarded as the weaker of the two groups coming into Olympic play, but there's nothing easy about Team USA's path to the gold-medal game now, with either Spain or France waiting in the semifinals provided Mike Krzyzewski's squad prevails Wednesday night.

4. FRANCE (3)

Even before the quarterfinal pairings were made official, France coach Vincent Collet had a premonition that his country would be drawn against Spain in the final eight. "It's a habit for us," Collet quipped.

France indeed stunned Spain -- in Spain -- in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Spain then avenged that loss, in France, in the semifinals of the 2015 Eurobasket. Wednesday's third installment in the series will send the winner to a likely semifinal showdown with the United States, while eliminating one of the pre-tournament favorites earlier than expected.

Collet says he still has no explanation for the hammering France absorbed from Australia in the tournament opener -- "We didn't play as a team that day and I don't know why," he said -- but has to be heartened by the way his team has rebounded. Sunday's three-point loss to the United States came without Tony Parker, who will certainly play on that bruised toe in the quarters against France's longtime Spanish rivals.

5. SERBIA (5)

All the focus back home is naturally on the Team USA crisis, if we can call it that, but the quarterfinals are truly headlined by a showdown of European powers (Spain vs. France) and a matchup that throws bitter rivals Serbia and Croatia onto the same floor for a spot in the final four.

The Serbs, furthermore, played so well in their Friday night date with the United States that it's easy to forget they lost the three most significant games they played in Group A, falling to France by one and Australia by 15 in addition to the 94-91 heartbreaker against the heavy, heavy Olympic favorites.

I guess we're as guilty as anyone, frankly, of buying into the Serbs' potential after a firsthand look at how they hung with Team USA, because we're firmly predicting a Serbia derby win despite the preceding paragraph. The truth is, those of us watching can't lose either way, because we get to see Bogdan Bogdanovic square off against Croatia's Bojan Bogdanovic in an irresistible battle for Slavic surname supremacy.

6. CROATIA (9)

It's conceivable that we're being too hard on the Croats. Very conceivable once you point out that they upset Spain in the teams' Group B opener, courtesy of Dario Saric's win-clinching rejection at the rim of Pau Gasol, and the fact that they actually won the group that also housed Spain, Lithuania, Argentina and Brazil.

However ...

The Committee can't resist docking Croatia for its loss to Nigeria, which was as hard to believe as anything that has happened in Rio since these Olympics began. Bojan Bogdanovic (24.8 PPG) and the Dario & Mario (Hezonja) Show can really only avenge that slipup, at least with us, by overcoming a long history of painful defeats against the old enemy.


The Lithuanians have made it a habit of their own over the years to A) cause Team USA numerous problems and B) get stronger as major tournaments dribble on. But the quality of their play has actually declined since an impressive 3-0 start in Group B, which makes it rather likely that Lithuania will never make it onto the same floor with the Yanks in Rio after tormenting them at the 2012 London Olympics.

Following wins over Brazil, Nigeria and Argentina, Lithuania was drilled by the desperate Spaniards by 50 -- yes, fiddy -- before a loss to Croatia in Monday night's Group B finale, when a win could have clinched first place in the group.

The quarterfinal matchup with Australia pits perhaps the two grittiest teams in the field against each other for a spot in the final four, but Charles Barkley's favorite foreign center, Toronto's Jonas Valanciunas, will have to do much more against Bogut and Aron Baynes than he did against Pau Gasol in the debacle against Spain.


Argentina's traveling band of fans is so good that Wednesday's quarterfinal meeting with the United States is sure to be entertaining ... even if the aging underdogs can't really hang.

Team USA won by a breezy 37 points when the teams met in July in an exhibition in Las Vegas, and, given the choice between facing Argentina and its many 30-somethings or feisty and unpredictable Croatia, it's a safe bet that the Americans, whether they'll ever admit it, are quietly pleased that the Croatians beat Lithuania on Monday night to avoid that assignment.

Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Carlos Delfino surely want to put on a good show in what is widely expected to be their final significant game for Argentina's proud and historic national team. Yet you only have to read our Tuesday morning postcard, filled with good insights from Ginobili and Scola, to understand how big the challenge looks to the Argentinean legends themselves.

(Editor's note: All four teams below have been eliminated from the competition.)

9. BRAZIL (7)

The hosts stunned Spain. They played a huge part in the game of this Olympiad by dueling longtime regional rivals Argentina for two overtimes before succumbing, 111-107. And yet they still ultimately validated all of our pre-tournament fears about their age and other shortcomings.

Remember how we had Brazil down at No. 7 coming into the competition? Going 2-3 was all too predictable and presumably brings a sad end to an era headlined by Committee favorites such as Leandro Barbosa and Marcelinho Huertas.

Hard to watch.

10. NIGERIA (10)

The Committee, for the record, is still trying to arrange our must-have Olympic selfie with former Cal State Fullerton standout Josh Akognon, who made his fellow Titan Tech alumni so proud by earning a spot on this roster and scoring 16 points in Nigeria's Group B finale against Brazil.

That's the unfinished business portion of Nigeria's memorable trip to South America.

Despite falling short of its dream to become the first African nation to advance to the single-elimination portion of the men's basketball tournament, Nigeria did get a lot done here, recording an unforgettable win over Croatia and giving mighty Spain quite a scare.

11. VENEZUELA (11)

With its only recognizable name unavailable throughout injury, leading scorer John Cox did the sidelined Greivis Vasquez and all of their countrymen proud by eliciting this memorable tweet from his cousin Kobe Bryant during Venezuela's game attempts to hang with the United States:

Combine that moment with Venezuela's victory over China in the only winnable game it had on its Rio schedule, and you can only conclude that La Vinotinto hit their Olympic ceiling.

12. CHINA (12)

You were warned here going in that China had the weakest team in the 12-nation draw. So you shouldn't have been surprised to see that former NBA lottery pick Yi Jianlian didn't have nearly enough help to make the Committee eat its words a la Australia.

Of course, as always in basketball-obsessed China, much more was expected back home in spite of our caution. An 0-5 showing in Rio -- more specifically China's failure to handle Venezuela in the only winnable game on its schedule -- hasn't been well-received.

The good news: China has two-plus years to make strides before hosting the next FIBA World Cup in 2019. The bad news: It's bound to be treated as a full-blown national embarrassment in that 32-team event if the Chinese can't manufacture at least something resembling success or progress.