Team USA the favorite? Who will qualify for the Olympics? Biggest surprises, predictions for the 2023 FIBA World Cup

Without some of the sport's biggest stars, the FIBA World Cup is a wide-open tournament where many nations have a shot at the title. Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The 2023 FIBA World Cup kicks off Friday with 32 teams playing in the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan. Defending champions Spain will be among the favorites alongside the United States, who are looking to bounce back after a disappointing seventh-place finish in 2019.

Earlier this spring, we assembled a team of ESPN's global basketball experts to discuss the matchups and draw. With rosters set and the games about to start, we take another look at the pressing questions heading into the tournament.

ESPN NBA senior writer Brian Windhorst, Eric Gomez (ESPN Mexico), Pablo Cormick (ESPN Argentina), Mickey Carter-Browne (ESPN UK), Jordi Blanco (ESPN Spain), Leonard Solms (ESPN Africa), Sid Ventura (ESPN Philippines), and Kane Pitman (ESPN Australia) are here to break down the games and make their predictions.

Are your thoughts on the Group of Death still the same?

Windhorst: Only two teams will advance from each region to Manila for the medal round. That means one of France, Canada and Spain from Groups G and H in Jakarta isn't going to make it -- and those teams are loaded with NBA players, more than 20 in all. And one of Australia, Germany and Luka Doncic-led Slovenia in Group E isn't going to make it from Okinawa. Rough.

Pitman: Despite flirting with the idea of changing my earlier nomination, I'm sticking with Group E. The loss of Jock Landale for the tournament threatens to leave Australia shorthanded at the five spot. That could potentially crack open the door for Germany, Finland and Japan to create some concerns for Brian Goorjian's squad. While the Aussies still enter as a favourite, the path absolutely contains some road bumps for the bronze medalists at the Tokyo Olympics.

Gomez: Group E with Germany, Finland, Australia and Japan is sneaky good and chock-full of recognizable names on every team (Josh Giddey! Lauri Markkanen! Franz Wagner! Yuta Watanabe?) It's not hard to argue for every team making it through to the second round had the draw spread them out to different groups.

Solms: Ivory Coast have the toughest task of all African sides competing at the tournament, having to face Spain, Brazil and Iran. The second-toughest group out of those containing African teams, in my opinion, is Group B, with South Sudan, Serbia and Puerto Rico.

Cormick: I don't think there is actually a Group of Death because there is always room for unexpected results. Finland, led by Markkanen, can dream about a surprise against either Germany or Australia. There are more chances of a competitive group in the second phase, where Spain, the most recent world champion; France, the silver medalist in the Tokyo Olympic Games; and Canada, always a tough team, could end up facing each other.

Which team is now the clear-cut favorite?

Gomez: If the USA roster was an NBA franchise, I'd like its chances to make a Finals run based on the coaching staff alone. On the court, it's a solid group with star power and plenty of role players who can provide quality minutes on both ends of the floor when the likes of Anthony Edwards, Brandon Ingram and Jalen Brunson have to rest. After the debacle in the mid-2000s, the U.S. has proven it can rise up to the challenge to FIBA rules and style -- even without having to field a Dream (or Redeem) Team.

Ventura: I don't think there's any clear-cut favorite. Several teams have a fair chance of going all the way. But going strictly by what we've seen in the tune-up games, the US has looked a lot better than expected. The Americans handled world No. 1 and defending champions Spain pretty well, then they showed character in erasing a 16-point deficit against Germany.

Carter-Browne: France narrowly missed out against a stacked U.S. team containing Kevin Durant, Jayson Tatum and Damian Lillard in the 2020 Olympics gold-medal match and lost against Spain in the 2022 EuroBasket final. Les Bleus have become the "nearly" team in recent tournaments, and with an American squad nowhere near as strong this year, I'm predicting the French to go all the way.

Blanco: The World Cup is always a benchmark for the United States toward the Olympic Games and this time it will be no different. With Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton, Edwards, rookie Paolo Banchero and Cam Johnson, Team USA could dominate and should reach the semifinals without much setback.

Which team is going to surprise in this tournament?

Gomez: I'd bank on Germany making a good run. Beyond their NBA core of Daniel Theis, Dennis Schroder and the Wagners, they boast established EuroLeague talent and the right combination of youth and experience to surprise a few of the blue bloods in this tournament.

Solms: Previously I said South Sudan, and I am not only sticking with that prediction, but I am doubling down. Nuni Omot -- a forward who can get up and down the floor well and contribute in all areas of the game -- is still key and was the MVP of the Basketball Africa League for Al Ahly. The Bright Stars have now also added NBA experience in Carlik Jones and Wenyen Gabriel.

Pitman: I also have South Sudan escaping Group B. No team scored more points in the African qualification, with the team knocking down a very tidy 37% of long-range attempts throughout. They play highly entertaining up-tempo basketball and will be a tricky opponent throughout.

Ventura: Watch out for Italy. The Azzurri have a core that has played together for years, plus they seem to be peaking at the right moment as their current 6-0 record in tune-up games indicates. They're heavy favorites to top Group A, and they have a good chance of beating whichever two teams come out of Group B in the second round. If they can avoid the Americans in the quarterfinals, then a semifinal spot is within reach.

Carter-Browne: Keep an eye on the Australian squad. Ben Simmons' absence will disappoint Australian fans, but Josh Giddey has the potential to be a standout performer for the Boomers in his first senior major tournament appearance. The pairing of a veteran core squad containing Patty Mills, Dante Exum, and Joe Ingles with some exciting youth could be the perfect recipe for success.

Blanco: I'm betting on Finland so long as they can get out of the group stage. Markkanen will have the support of solid and tough players such as Henri Kantonen, Edon Maxhuni and the veteran Sasu Salin. The Finns could have the ability to surprise on the floor and score a few unexpected wins.

Cormick: Dominican Republic. They did it in 2019, and now they have more depth in their roster. Argentine coach Nestor Garcia has the skills to solve complicated games against teams that look better on paper, has blended experience and youth, and with the addition of a top player like Karl-Anthony Towns, can dream about reaching the quarterfinals.

The World Cup also decides many of the 2024 Olympic berths. Seven of the 12 spots are handed to the top teams in each region. France, as the host nation, automatically gets the eighth. Which team could surprise and score an Olympic berth in Manila?

Windhorst: Let's briefly discuss South Sudan, the world's youngest nation playing in its first World Cup. Led by two with familiar names to NBA fans, general manager Luol Deng and coach Royal Ivey, this team has some talent. Gabriel, who played 68 games for the Los Angeles Lakers last season, has joined the roster. They also have Chicago Bulls point guard Carlik Jones, who was the G League MVP last season. They are ranked 62nd in the FIBA rankings but ignore that. They went 11-1 in the World Cup qualifiers, and they have a real chance to win the African bid to the Olympics. It would be a terrific story.

Ventura: Am I allowed to say the Philippines could pull off a surprise? The co-hosts don't necessarily have to make it out of the group stage to book a ticket to Paris, so long as the other Asian countries falter. If Gilas gets just one win in the group stage, that could give them a leg up on the competition.

Carter-Browne: I look to Europe, as France's automatic qualification gives the European region an extra spot.

The list of missing players across top European teams is endless. This gives an opportunity to squads that have gone all-in, such as Germany. Barring Maxi Kleber, The German team has no more noticeable absences, meaning they could be set to take the second automatic qualification spot.

Which expected team could miss out on Paris?

Windhorst: There are always strong European teams that miss out. Watch out for Spain, the defending champs, just because of their brutal draw. They are missing leader Ricky Rubio and will have to edge past France or Canada to reach the quarterfinals and likely secure a bid.

Solms: Angola are a team in transition, and with stalwart Carlos Morais frozen out at the time of writing, they might follow in the footsteps of their top club side, Petro de Luanda at the BAL and underwhelm at this World Cup despite their pedigree.

Ventura: Meanwhile, with Australia in the Group of Death and only one slot assigned for Oceania, there's a chance -- however small -- the Boomers will be relegated to the classification stage. Their only competition, New Zealand, probably won't make it to the second round, either, but if both squads fall to the classification stage then things could get interesting.

Pitman: Greece could find itself on the difficult path through the qualification tournament with Giannis Antetokounmpo missing the World Cup. A passionate basketball nation, it would be a thrill to see Greek men's basketball back in the Olympics for the first time since 2008.

Carter-Browne: The Americas region is where it will get tense; an upset is bound to happen when there are only two automatic qualification spots available. This region is so competitive as six of the seven teams sit in the current top 23 FIBA ranking spots.

Cormick: Canada. Without Jamal Murray and Andrew Wiggins, it looks like they could, once again, not live up to expectations. Their fixtures could also mean they'll face Spain and France too soon.

Given that some of the NBA's biggest stars have pulled out, has the World Cup lost some of its luster?

Windhorst: Yes. The World Cup is the toughest tournament to win, without question. But the decision FIBA made last decade to put it and the Olympics in back-to-back years is costing it top players. The Olympics matter more in basketball, especially to players in the Americas. They are being forced to prioritize one, and they are.

Solms: To a certain extent, but it is also an opportunity for supremely talented players who do not yet have the pedigree of a LeBron James or Kevin Durant to earn their crowning moments. For example, if Austin Reaves leads USA to victory or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander does the same for Canada, it could be talked about for years to come as their stock rises. African fans, meanwhile, are excited to see NBA players such as Gabriel and Jones turn out.

Gomez: Not if you're a basketball fanatic. The NBA is as strong as it has ever been, and that's precisely because of the influx of international talent. Even without the likes of Giannis and Victor Wembanyama, there are still loads of great players on display on several of the World Cup rosters. The tournament is almost always a scout's dream as well, given that top prospects from around the world get a chance to face off against NBA and NCAA-caliber talent.

Cormick: Not at all. The World Cup is much more than having more or less NBA players. World Cup glory and a place in the Olympic Games is in and of itself great motivation for any national team.

Time for some predictions. Who will make the final and who will win it all? Who's your tournament MVP?

Gomez: James Naismith rejoices from the beyond! The U.S. and Canada face off in the tournament final, with the Americans winning it behind an explosive performance from Anthony Edwards, who takes home MVP honors.

Solms: Having chosen Team USA over Italy, I expect Paolo Banchero to be the star of the FIBA World Cup. The former Duke power forward won the NBA's Rookie of the Year award this season and it feels like he has been around forever.

Ventura: This is a tough one with the field as wide-open as it's been in years. But if I must make a choice, then give me a "Hustle" reunion in the final with the U.S. dethroning Spain and Kermit Wilts getting his revenge on Bo Cruz by winning MVP.

Pitman: I'll stick with my very early pick of U.S.-Australia despite some injury concerns for the Boomers. Defensively, the Australians stack up with any nation in the tournament, and I believe that end of the floor can carry them to a deep run if they navigate the pressure of a challenging group. I'll go with Brandon Ingram as the tournament MVP. When healthy, Ingram is a high-level scorer in the NBA, with the New Orleans Pelicans star seemingly in prime position to take a leading role in the Team USA offense at the World Cup.

Carter-Browne: I have the French winning it all with Evan Fournier as tournament MVP. Although the two most recent FIBA World Cup MVPs have been point guards (Ricky Rubio in 2019 and Kyrie Irving in 2014) I think that Fournier's importance in France's 2020 Olympic and 2022 EuroBasket silver-medal wins cannot be underestimated, and he will be crucial to Les Bleus.

Windhorst: I don't make predictions in the NBA, much less in the often-wild world of FIBA ball. The only thing I will say is the unbalanced nature of the draw will create an unexpected final eight for the medal round.