The U.S. men’s basketball team isn’t used to playing high-pressure games in the group stages of the Olympic Games, but that’s just what they’re doing in 2021.
After losing its first overall game to France and beating Iran, Team USA is currently tied for second-place in its group with the Czech Republic. The two countries are set to square off against one another with the winner earning what will likely be second-place in Group A at the Olympics.
And the loser? Well, they’ll be sweating it out to see if they make it through to the quarterfinals of the men’s basketball tournament.
Eight of the 12 basketball teams advance to the single-elimination bracket in the tournament, and Team USA is usually a shoo-in for this portion of the event. However, in 2021, they could find themselves on shakier ground than usual ahead of their matchup against the Czech Republic.
This is the Czech Republic’s first appearance in the Olympics. They have just one NBA player — Tomas Satoransky of the Bulls — on their roster, but the team knocked off some tough competition to get to Tokyo. They beat Canada and Greece (minus Giannis Antetokounmpo) to earn the final of the 12 qualification spots. They beat Iran by six before losing by 20 to France.
Team USA should beat the Czechs handily, but nothing has been easy for them so far during this Olympic campaign. Here’s a look at all the possible scenarios for Team USA as it looks to move onto the single-elimination phase of the men’s basketball tournament.
What happens if Team USA beats the Czech Republic?
Team USA will advance to the event quarterfinals with a win over the Czech Republic on Saturday. Plain and simple.
Where it gets complicated is the potential seeding for the quaterfinals. If the Americans win, they are likely to finish second in their group. However, if Iran should somehow beat France and Team USA wins, they would advance in first place of the group. Given how the Olympic bracket is set up, with the three first-place teams and best second-place team being placed in the stronger pot for matchup selection and the remaining four teams being placed in the weaker pot, that could benefit Team USA.
Here’s how the quarterfinal draw will work after group play is complete, according to FIBA guidelines:
The winners of the groups (3 teams) and the second-placed team with the best result (1 team) from the Group Phase are placed in one pot (D), while the 2 remaining second-placed teams and 2 best third-placed teams in another pot (E). Teams from the same group in the Group Phase cannot be drawn against each other in the Quarter-Finals.
Of course, Iran lost by 54 points against Team USA, so Iran seems unlikely to defeat France.
Still, if Team USA finishes in second, they’ll automatically advance in second place from the group. They would have five points, in this scenario, and would be hoping to qualify as the best second-place team (once again, to be placed in the more favorable selection pot). For that to happen, they would need to win and have a greater point differential than the winner of the Slovenia vs. Spain game.
Currently, this is how the point differential looks for each side.
As such, the U.S. should probably be rooting for Slovenia, as Team USA would be guaranteed to have a better point differential than Spain if Slovenia wins. They wouldn’t necessarily be guaranteed a better point differential than Slovenia if the Luka Doncic-led squad loses.
If Team USA wins, they will most likely end up fourth or fifth for the draw among remaining teams. They have an outside shot at the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, but that would involve France losing to Iran. They cannot get the No. 1 seed no matter what, as either Spain or Slovenia will go 3-0, earn six points and finish ahead of the United States.
However, the U.S. could fall to the No. 6 seed even in a win, but like getting a top-three seed, that’s unlikely. The simplest path resulting in the U.S. as a sixth seed would require Australia winning and Italy beating Nigeria by 41 plus the margin of victory the United States would have over the Czechs. That would be a mighty tall task for the Italians.
What happens if Team USA loses to the Czech Republic?
Team USA can still advance with a loss. They would have four points instead of five, as Olympic basketball awards two points for a win, one point for a loss and zero points for a forfeit. Their prospects would get a bit dicier, but they would still be highly likely to get through.
If Team USA loses on Saturday, the Czech Republic and France will advance in first and second place (in some order) in Group A. As such, the United States would need to be either the best or second-best of the third-place teams in the competition. They’d also have to make sure Iran doesn’t overtake them in the group standings, but that’s virtually impossible.
Iran would need to beat France and make up a 107-point difference between them and the United States. That almost certainly won’t happen, so Team USA would then have to focus on besting the other third-place finishers in the competition.
Team USA already has a leg up on the third-place finisher from Group C. The winner of Japan vs. Argentina will finish third in that group, but the teams have point differentials of minus-46 and minus-28 respectively. Unless Argentina wins and makes up the 75-point difference between itself and the United States, they won’t be able to overtake Team USA.
Group B is a bit more of a potential problem for the United States. Italy and Germany each have three points and are not facing each other. If Italy beats Nigeria and Germany beats Australia, each team would have five points, as would Australia. That would give the third-place team from Group B an advantage over Team USA.
But again, unless the United States suffers a massive loss at the hands of the Czechs and sees Argentina crush Japan (or vice versa), they would still advance in eighth place. That is, unless the unthinkable happens and Iran erases a 107-point differential between itself and the United States against France.
So, can the United States be eliminated with a loss? Yes, the possibility exists. But is it going to happen? It almost certainly won’t. They can erase all doubt and potentially set up a better quarterfinal matchup with a win, but if they lose, don’t worry too much. Odds are they won’t be out of the Olympics just yet.