For all the marbles
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2019 - 12:00am

It’s down to one final game to decide the new FIBA World Cup champion. Two unbeaten teams are left among 32 that began hostilities in China last Aug. 31. When the dust clears, 92 games will have been played over 16 days involving the best of the best from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

The late FIBA secretary-general Patrick Baumann’s vision was to make basketball the most popular sport on the planet. He overhauled the system of global competition, creating a format where fans could enjoy the exploits of their national teams in home-and-away qualifiers for the Olympics and World Cup. Baumann realigned the quadrennial schedule of the World Cup to veer away from a head-on collision with the football version and put the spotlight squarely on the game for fans across the universe to relish. His ambitious dream was to make the World Cup the biggest ever and so it became with a record 32 teams battling for honors in eight different cities in China this year.

Baumann’s successor Andreas Zagklis has taken over FIBA’s reins and is leading the way for the organization to achieve greater things. FIBA couldn’t be in better hands. In 2023, the World Cup will be hosted by three Asian countries, a first in its history since the 1950 inaugurals. This milestone was also a creation of Baumann’s imagination. And Zagklis will see it through.

Tonight, the World Cup will crown a new champion with back-to-back defending titlist USA dethroned by France in the quarterfinals. Argentina and Spain are both undefeated with 7-0 records. Spain has a higher FIBA world ranking, No. 2, than No. 5 Argentina but that’s no indication as to which team will wind up with the gold medal.

Argentina is norming 87.6 points and giving up 70.9 points a game with an average winning margin of 16.7. Spain is scoring 82.9 points and conceding 69.3 points a contest with an average winning gap of 13.6. In Spain’s first five games, every opponent was held to less than 70 points. In three outings, Spain scored at least 90. Argentina has tallied at least 90 in four contests and held opponents to less than 70 in five. Thrice, Argentina blasted opponents by 20 or more points while Spain did it only once.

Both Argentina and Spain have topped the World Cup once. Argentina won the first World Cup in 1950 and Spain took the gold in 2006. In the Olympics, Spain has bagged three silvers in 1984, 2008 and 2012 while Argentina captured the gold in 2004 and the bronze in 2008.

The matchups to watch are Argentina’s 5-10 Facundo (The Magician) Campazzo, 28, against Spain’s 6-4 Ricky Rubio, 28, at point guard and Argentina’s 6-8 Luis Scola, 39, against Spain’s 7-1 Marc Gasol, 34, at center. Expected to play major roles for Argentina are 6-8 Gabby Deck, 6-4 Nicolas Laprovittola, 6-3 Luca Vildoza and 6-9 Marcos Delia. For Spain, other key players are 6-5 Rudy Fernandez, 6-3 Sergio Llull, 6-9 Victor Claver and the Hernangomez brothers 6-9 Juan and 7-0 Willy. Italian Sergio Scariolo, 58, is Spain’s head coach and comes fresh from a championship stint with the Toronto Raptors in Nick Nurse’s staff.  Sergio Hernandez, 55, is Argentina’s head coach. He piloted Argentina to the gold medal at the PanAm Games in Lima this year with a 114-75 win over the US in the semis and an 84-66 decision over Puerto Rico in the final.

On paper, Spain has more depth and plays tougher defense. In the semis, Spain limited Australia to 88 points despite two extensions, quite a defensive feat. It also held Serbia to 69 points in the second round. In contrast, Argentina is an offensive juggernaut, scoring 97 points over Serbia in the quarterfinals but also displayed stingy defense in limiting France to 66 in the semifinals. For Argentina, the key is Campazzo. If the Magician is able to put pace behind the ball, Argentina will be at an advantage in an up-and-down tempo. Spain likes to play the deliberate, half-court set and exploit its edge in size. Gasol is lethal either as a roller or a popper after setting a pick and he’ll be a major headache for Scola. The showdown for the gold should be a thriller.

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