The International Olympic Committee can make the men's basketball tournament more competitive and fun to watch by doubling the teams invited to the Games.
One of the weird things you'll note about Olympic basketball is that it features a tiny field relative to the sport's other major global tournament, the FIBA World Cup. (They have changed the name from the World Championship going forward, I assume to borrow from the soccer tournament's popularity.) Only 12 teams make it to the Olympics, where 24 will qualify for the 2014 World Cup. In 2019, the field will have 32 teams -- or 20 more than the Olympics.
It's nice to have a tournament with some exclusivity. The idea is that it limits blowouts, makes every game more competitive and allows basketball fans to also enjoy more of the bounty that the Olympic Games offers. But only the last point has any merit. The 12-team field doesn't do anything to limit blowouts in group play or make games more competitive.
The issue is that the Olympics, despite its small size, grants five regions a total of seven automatic bids. The Americas (which includes powerhouses like the United States and Argentina) gets two automatic bids, as does Europe, a continent replete with good to great teams. But then Asia (China), Oceania (Australia) and Africa (Tunisia) all add a team, too. And frankly, these teams are not typically near the level of the top teams in the Americas and Europe. Yet they make up a quarter of the field. The other five qualifiers come from the reigning World Champion (Team USA this time around), the host nation and three wild card berths decided by supplementary tournament.
Having automatic qualifiers from the regions is great. It ensures that we're developing basketball everywhere it can be played (which is everywhere). But having those teams in the tournament leads to a good number of blowouts in group play. Witness Russia's win over China on Tuesday, a double-digit plastering that was never ever ever in doubt. China was the Asian champion. Russia got in as a wild card. And Russia was twice as strong as China. Doesn't that tell you something about the automatic qualifiers and the wild card adds?
The truth is that the in most years the top 10-14 teams in Europe will be better than the best team in Asia, Oceania or Africa. The top five in the Americas will usually be better than the automatic qualifiers from the three weak regions. (Note that Oceania is all of two teams deep, as in only two nations -- Australia and New Zealand -- compete for the Oceanic automatic berth.) Russia is a perfect example: it was shut out of the automatic bids in Europe, and needed to play at the wild card tournament in early July to earn a spot. It currently looks strong enough to beat Spain and medal. There are quite possibly other teams like Russia -- not quite as strong, but you never know -- that Olympic fans can't see.
Take Turkey, for example. Because the calendar is so tight between the end of the major league's seasons and the start of the Olympics, FIBA has to constrict admission to the wild card tournament. So much like the top one or two teams from the regional tournaments like EuroBasket earn automatic bids to the Olympics, the next couple finishers earn automatic bids to the wild card tournament. Turkey finished No. 2 in the 2010 World Championship, behind only Team USA. But only the team who placed No. 3 through No. 6 in EuroBasket 2011 earned bids to the wild card tournament. Turkey had a rough tournament and landed at No. 11.
So quite possibly the second or third best team in the world was eliminated from Olympic contention a year before the Games began.
How tight is the Olympic tournament? This is Tony Parker's first visit. He's 30 years old. The tiny field size also makes it imperative that nations bring their top players to the regional tournaments held a year before the Olympics. That expands the duties of already exhausted players, and leads to the distaste NBA team reps have with international play.
The easy solution: expand the field to 24. You'll have four groups of six in pool play, with each team playing five games, as they do currently. The top two finishers from each group move on to the quarterfinals, and the tournament follows the same format from there. How do you determine the bids? Automatic bids for the last Olympic champion, the host nation, the top three World Cup finishers who haven't already qualified via the previous two designations, the top three in EuroBasket, the top two in FIBA Americas and one from a combined Asia-Oceania tournament and from Africa. That gives us 12 teams and 12 open spots. Invite the next 24 best teams according to the FIBA World Rankings (which should be modified to place greater emphasis on recent play) to a wild card tournament a few weeks before the Olympics. Separate them into six groups of four. Do a round of play within the groups. The top two from each group advance to the Olympics. Now we have 24 teams in the Olympics. It's pretty simple.
How would this help, other than getting more worthy teams in the tournament (which in itself is a useful objective)? It'd boost the number of teams prepared to play well right now. An example of this is Nigeria, who didn't win the African championship last summer but did get an invite to the wild card tournament. With Ike Diogu and two Aminus, the Nigerians came out blasting in the wild card spot ... and won a spot. They promptly beat Tunisia, the African champs, in the Olympics' first match. Adding those late-berth spots ensures that most of the teams enter the tournament in strong shape. Given how much one injury can matter, that's huge. It would make the majority of games more competitive. Team USA will still win blowouts, but perhaps Russia wouldn't be racking up the lopsided victories it's seeing early.
It's worth noting that FIBA has requested a larger Olympic field, but the International Olympic Committee has repeatedly denied those requests. It'll take some catastrophe like Team USA failing to qualify after the tournament potentially goes under-23 for the IOC to change its mind, it appears.
I'll end this plea with the indelible image of Skopje, the capital of F.Y.R. Macedonia, a tiny country that stunned Lithuania in the quarterfinals of EuroBasket 2011. This is how F.Y.R. Macedonia celebrated a win that put them into the semifinals of a continental tournament.
Imagine what they'd do if they found their team in the Olympics. We need to support basketball-crazy people like the good folks of Skopje. We need to open up the Olympic tournament to more teams.
The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.