Olympics

Australia-Brazil Preview

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An intimidating frontcourt full of NBA talent gives Brazil a chance to reach the podium in London, as proven by the battle it recently gave to the gold-medal favorite.

The absence of its best big man seriously hurts Australia's hopes of claiming its first Olympic medal in men's basketball.

Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao will key a Brazilian squad making its first Summer Games appearance since 1996, starting Sunday with a matchup against an Australian team missing star center Andrew Bogut.

It was originally uncertain if Nene, the 10-year NBA veteran, would play for Brazil after choosing not to represent his country since 2007. Even without him, Varejao and Indiana Pacers guard Leandro Barbosa, the Brazilians went 8-2 in last fall's FIBA Americas Championship to qualify for London.

All of them are joining Splitter for the Olympics, and in a tuneup against the United States on July 16 in Washington D.C., Brazil took an early 10-point lead and kept the game close before losing 80-69.

"They're not going to get too much tougher than the one we played tonight," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team also struggled in a 70-68 win over the Brazilians at the 2010 world championships.

"I think Brazil has a great chance to be in contention for a gold medal."

A big reason why is the trio of Nene, Splitter and Varejao, who are all 6-foot-11. Nene has averaged 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds over the past four seasons. Splitter became a key member of the San Antonio Spurs bench in his second NBA season, averaging 9.3 points and 5.2 boards. Varejao averaged a career-high 11.5 rebounds in 2011-12.

"This has been a longtime dream of mine," said Varejao, fully recovered from a wrist injury that caused him to miss the final 41 games of the NBA season. "I've played in a lot of competitions with Brazil, but playing in the Olympics is different. I'm very motivated."

Facing that towering frontline will be significantly tougher for Australia because it won't have Bogut, who remains sidelined following surgery for a broken ankle. The former No. 1 overall pick led the Aussies to the quarterfinals at the 2008 Beijing Games.

The best they have ever done in an Olympics was fourth place, most recently in 2000.

The Brazilians' interior edge hurt Australia in an exhibition on Monday in France. Splitter scored 15 points, Nene had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Varejao grabbed 13 boards in an 87-71 win.

The only current NBA player on this Australian roster is Patty Mills, Splitter's teammate with San Antonio. The backup point guard started the final two games this season, scoring a combined 61 points. He had 14 in Monday's friendly.

The Brazilians have two talented backcourt players of their own in Barbosa and Marcelo Huertas. Barbosa, a former NBA Sixth Man of the Year, has a career 12.5-point average in nine NBA seasons. Huertas had 11 points and 13 assists in the recent loss to the Americans.

"It was a very important challenge (against the U.S.) to make the team ready for the Olympics," coach Ruben Magnano said through an interpreter.

The Aussies also had an impressive warmup loss, leading reigning European champion Spain with six minutes to play before falling 75-69 on July 18.

"We don't really care if we are playing the (United) States, Spain or whoever - we're going to play hard," guard Joe Ingles said.

Australia is coached by Brett Brown, an assistant with the Spurs since 2002 who has longtime ties Down Under.

These Group B teams next play Tuesday, with Australia facing Spain and Brazil meeting Britain.

Tagged: Tiago Splitter

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