For all of their starry absences, the United States will be the favorite to retain their FIBA World Cup when the 2019 edition tips off on Saturday in China. But an alternative victor isn’t that difficult to imagine.

Within the competition’s largest-ever field of 32, there are a clutch of potential contenders including 2006 winners Spain, the experienced and talented and formidable .

Over one billion expecting eyes will be on the hosts. Even lower-ranked challengers like Jordan and Tunisia will have goals to fulfill, with the sub-plot of seven berths at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo also up for grabs.

The World Cup may lack some of the stardust of those Games but it still promises to deliver 16 days of fascinating top-quality basketball — until the winner is crowned in Beijing on Sept. 15.

Here’s .com’s look at the eight opening round groups — and some analysis and predictions of how the tournament might unfold, including a champion that’s not you-know-who…


GROUP A (Beijing): Cote d’Ivoire, Poland, Venezuela, China

COTE D’IVOIRE

Key player: Souleyman Diabete
Head coach: Paolo Povia
How they qualified: 3rd in Africa group
Previous World Cup best: 13th (twice)
FIBA ranking (as of Feb. 26, 2019): 64

Outlook: The Elephants have struggled in the build-up despite naturalizing American forward Deon Thompson and delivering occasionally solid defense. Rows with the federation have been a distraction for the players with a threat to go on strike over missed payments. Rank outsiders for a good reason.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

POLAND

Key player: Mateusz Ponitka
Head coach: Mike Taylor
How they qualified: 3rd in European group
Previous World Cup best: 5th (1967)
FIBA ranking: 15

Outlook: Great continuity hasn’t boosted results ahead of China for a roster missing the retired Marcin Gortat. One-time Knicks ball boy Mike Taylor needs to work some coaching magic although his team can pile up points behind EuroLeague vet AJ Slaughter.

Prediction: Second Round

VENEZUELA

Key player: Nestor Colmenares
Head coach: Fernando Duro
How they qualified: 2nd in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: 11th (1990)
FIBA ranking: 20

Outlook: An ageing roster has been diverted by logistical issues, in addition to reported discontent between Duro and his players. More down than up offensively, Venezuela will kick off their World Cup bid following a heavy loss in its final friendly game with Greece. Their opener against the Poles is pivotal.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

CHINA

Key player: Yi Jianlian
Head coach: Li Nan
How they qualified: Hosts
Previous World Cup best: 8th (1994)
FIBA ranking: 30

Outlook: The hosts have had the longest preparation of any team, with 17 games including a shot at NBA Summer League. Size and an easier draw gets China out of this group. In a tough bracket, progress beyond the second round might hinge on Yi shaking off an ankle injury and playmaker Guo Ailun’s tenacity.

Prediction: Second Round

Group A Forecast: 1. China, 2. Poland, 3. Angola, 4. Venezuela.


GROUP B (Wuhan): Russia, Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria

RUSSIA

Key player: Sergey Karasev
Head coach: Sergey Bazarevich
How they qualified: 2nd in European group
Previous World Cup best: 2nd (twice)
FIBA ranking: 10

Outlook: Respectability has been restored to Mother Russia following a few lean years even if the potency of old has yet to return and injuries have altered their roster. Ex-Nets forward Karasev needs to be an offensive fulcrum to ensure there’s no early stumble but a large warm-up loss to Argentina lengthened their odds.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

ARGENTINA

Key player: Facundo Campazzo
Head coach: Sergio Hernandez
How they qualified: 2nd in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: Champions (1950)
FIBA ranking: 5

Outlook: Even at 39, Luis Scola is a key threat but Hernandez will turn to pair Gabriel Deck and Campazzo to ignite a new post-Ginobili era of success. In 13 prep games, Argentina was 9-4. Rebuilding, yes, but still immensely potent.

Prediction: Quarterfinal

SOUTH KOREA

Key player: Ricardo Ratliffe
Head coach: Hur Jae
How they qualified: 2nd in Asian group
Previous World Cup best: 11th (1970)
FIBA ranking: 32

Outlook: A largely home-based roster lacks experience and their small-ball crew will lean on muscle brought by long-time American-born KBL star Ricardo Ratliffe. Just three official tune-up games leaves the Koreans short of game time in a group where they are utter long shots.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

NIGERIA

Key player: Al-Farouq Aminu
Head coach: Alex Nwora
How they qualified: 1st in African group
Previous World Cup best: 13 (1998)
FIBA ranking: 33

Outlook: Solid wins over Canada and Montenegro this month proved their potential amid arguments over finances with Nigeria’s federation. D’Tigers possess players capable of individual dominance and a real toughness, providing them with a real shot at becoming the first African team to reach the last eight since 1950.

Prediction: Quarterfinal

Group B Forecast: 1. Argentina, 2. Nigeria, 3. Russia, 4. South Korea


GROUP C (Guangzhou): Spain, Iran, Puerto Rico, Tunisia

SPAIN

Key player: Marc Gasol
Head coach: Sergio Scariolo
How they qualified: 1st in European group
Previous World Cup best: Champions (2006)
FIBA ranking: 2

Outlook: With notable absences including Pau Gasol and Sergio Rodriquez, Scariolo has been forced to bring in new talent. No bad thing with Willy and Juan Hernangomez poised for lead roles and a system that’s always quickly assimilated fresh faces. As ever, the Spanish will expect to go deep into the tournament.

Prediction: Semifinal

IRAN

Key player: Hamed Haddadi
Head coach: Mehran Shahintab
How they qualified: 3rd in Asia group
Previous World Cup best: 19th (2010)
FIBA ranking: 27

Outlook: With second place in the group very much a three-way fight, Iran will look to capitalize on the lessons from a tough prep schedule in which a 6-4 record was compiled. Haddadi is central to everything they do.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

PUERTO RICO

Key player: Isaiah Pineiro
Head coach: Eddie Casiano
How they qualified: 3rd in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: 4th (1990)
FIBA ranking: 16

Outlook: Stripped of JJ Barea due to injury, Puerto Rico took silver at the recent PanAmerican Games but a lack of size in depth has exposed gaps and a heavy loss in a friendly with Senegal last week asked all sorts of awkward questions.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

TUNISIA

Key player: Salah Mejri
Head coach: Mario Palma
How they qualified: 1st in African group
Previous World Cup best: 24th (2010)
FIBA ranking: 51

Outlook: The oldest team in the World Cup with an average age of 31, the Tunisians benefit from continuity and chemistry. Mejri is its totem — although look out for crafty point guard Omar Abada — and it’s a team capable of picking up at least one win.

Prediction: Second Round

Group C Forecast: 1. Spain, 2. Tunisia, 3. Iran, 4. Puerto Rico


GROUP D (Foshan): Angola, Philippines, Italy,

ANGOLA

Key player: Yanick Moreira
Head coach: Will Voigt
How they qualified: 2nd in African group
Previous World Cup best: 9th (2006)
FIBA ranking: 39

Outlook: Losing Atlanta Hawks rookie Bruno Fernando left the Angolans short of youthful energy on a roster which seems past its prime. Eduardo Mingas plays in his fifth World Cup at the age of 40. 1-6 this summer, it may be a tough farewell.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

PHILIPPINES

Key player: Andray Blatche
Head coach: Yeng Guiao
How they qualified: 4th in Asian group
Previous World Cup best: 3rd (1954)
FIBA ranking: 31

Outlook: Blatche, now playing in China, will shoulder an immense load in the paint for the Filipinos who lack size elsewhere and rely on the speed of their wings and guards to obtain stops. They will hope to beat Angola. That might be the best available consolation prize.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

ITALY

Key player:
Head coach: Romeo Sacchetti
How they qualified: 2nd in European group
Previous World Cup best: 4th (twice)
FIBA ranking: 13

Outlook: The Azzurri possess an abundance of talent and experience at every position. Meshing it has been problematic. A terrible 4-7 in preparing, Sacchetti’s team lost six straight entering the Cup even though three were close-run. As so often in the past, the great enigmas.

Prediction: Second Round

Key player:
Head coach: Sasha Djordjevic
How they qualified: 3rd in European group
Previous World Cup best: Champions (twice)
FIBA ranking: 4

Outlook: A perfect 9-0 this summer with some A-List opponents, the Serbs are openly targeting a third straight global finale following silver showings at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. They’ll miss Milos Teodosic but Jokic’s presence makes them contenders to win it all.

Prediction: Champion

Group D Forecast: 1. , 2. Italy, 3. Philippines, 4. Angola


GROUP E (Shanghai): Turkey, Czech Republic, USA, Japan

TURKEY

Key player: Furkan Korkmaz
Head coach: Ufuk Sarıca
How they qualified: 2nd in European group
Previous World Cup best: 2nd (2010)
FIBA ranking: 17

Outlook: The Turks contain a very cohesive offense unit with 76ers guard Korkmaz and Cavs forward Cedi Osman as a nice one-two punch. Runners-up in 2010, they want another prolonged run although their initial clash with the Czechs is huge.

Prediction: Second Round

CZECH REPUBLIC

Key player: Tomas Satoransky
Head coach: Ronen Ginzburg
How they qualified: 3rd in European group
Previous World Cup best: Debut
FIBA ranking: 14

Outlook: Losing Jan Vesely to a knee injury stripped the Czechs of their totem, throwing much of the responsibility towards Satoransky. Yet Ondrej Balvin has stepped into the void and results have been impressive, underlining an unexpected depth and an ability to flourish at a quick pace.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

USA

Key player: Khris Middleton
Head coach: Gregg Popovich
How they qualified: 1st in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: Champions (5 times)
FIBA ranking: 1

Outlook: The reigning champions, the favorites, the team to beat, even after the 78-game winning streak-ending loss to that highlighted vulnerabilities among what is very much a USA B-team. This group certainly lacks the intimidation factor of old. While the Americans might not start as the best side, they can still end the World Cup ahead of the pack if they can quickly adapt. No guarantees though this time.

Prediction: Semifinal

JAPAN

Key player: Yuta Watanabe
Head coach: Julio Lamas
How they qualified: 3rd in Asian group
Previous World Cup best: 11th (1967)
FIBA ranking: 48

Outlook: This might be the best Japan team in recent times with the misfortune of ending up an incredibly difficult pool. Lamas is a maestro on the international stage and he’ll pursue a stolen win with young forward Rui Hachimura offered a platform for a breakout.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

Group E Forecast: 1. USA, 2. Turkey, 3. Czech Republic, 4. Japan


GROUP F (Nanjing): Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, Montenegro

GREECE

Key player:
Head coach: Thanasis Skourtopoulos
How they qualified: 1st in European group
Previous World Cup best: 2nd (2006)
FIBA ranking: 8

Outlook: With the reigning NBA MVP returning to the fold, Greece is riding a wave of Giannis-led optimism after sustaining only a single loss — to — during nine friendlies during the past month. With experience and defensive savvy around him, they’ll test everyone.

Prediction: Quarterfinal

NEW ZEALAND

Key player: Corey Webster
Head coach: Paul Henare
How they qualified: 1st in Asian group
Previous World Cup best: 4th (2002)
FIBA ranking: 38

Outlook: The Tall Blacks won’t have Steven Adams but they’ll bring their haka and hope. It’s on defense where New Zealand lack rhythm and that weakness may be exposed in the opening phase, even with a late uptick in form.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

BRAZIL

Key player: Leandro Barbosa
Head coach: Aleksandar Petrovic
How they qualified: 3rd in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: Champions (twice)
FIBA ranking: 12

Outlook: Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa are still in action! And the Brazilians can trade on a lot of miles in unison on the international clock that have paid dividends in a 6-1 prep record. If their outside shooting is on song, they can make a little sweet music.

Prediction: Second Round

MONTENEGRO

Key player: Nikola Vucevic
Head coach: Zvezdan Mitrovic
How they qualified: 3rd in European group
Previous World Cup best: Debut
FIBA ranking: 38

Outlook: In its World Cup bow, the Montenegrins are going to ask much of Vucevic at both ends of the floor. The flaw is that defensively, they’ve only held one international opponent to under 77 points in six attempts this summer.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

Group F Forecast: 1. Greece, 2. Brazil, 3. Montenegro, 4. New Zealand


GROUP G (Shenzhen): Dominican Republic, France, , Jordan

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC

Key player: Eloy Vargas
Head coach: Che Garcia
How they qualified: 4th in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: 12th (1978)
FIBA ranking: 18

Outlook: Minus Karl-Anthony Towns and Al Horford, the DR is counting on a veteran group to bind together under its recently-installed coach and for different folk to step up on each gameday. Not so simple.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

FRANCE

Key player: Nicolas Batum
Head coach: Vincent Collet
How they qualified: 1st in European group
Previous World Cup best: 3rd (2014)
FIBA ranking: 3

Outlook: 6-2 in the pre-tournament, Collet is meshing the remainder of France’s golden generation with fresh blood, while utilizing as his anchor. Les Bleus want to be at the Olympics and ready themselves for a medal shot but they are in a harsh quarter of the bracket.

Prediction: Second Round

Key player: Dennis Schröder
Head coach: Henrik Rödl
How they qualified: 2nd in European group
Previous World Cup best: 3rd (2002)
FIBA ranking: 22

Outlook: Can the post-Dirk generation match the accomplishments of their Nowitzki-led predecessors? There’s more depth arguably in the current crop and they went 6-1 in the pre-tournament warm ups, including a win over in their last rehearsal. An intriguing outsider.

Prediction: Second Round

JORDAN

Key player: Ahmet Düverioğlu
Head coach: Joseph Stiebing
How they qualified: 3rd in Asian group
Previous World Cup best: 23rd (2010)
FIBA ranking: 49

Outlook: Preventing rivals from scoring big is the Jordanians’ greatest task. One which may be beyond them. American-born swingman Dar Tucker is the main offensive weapon at Stiebing’s disposal.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

Group G Forecast: 1. France, 2. , 3. Dominican Republic, 4. Jordan


GROUP H (Dongguan): Canada, Senegal, Lithuania,

CANADA

Key player: Cory Joseph
Head coach:
How they qualified: 1st in Americas group
Previous World Cup best: 6th (twice)
FIBA ranking: 23

Outlook: At full-strength, Canada would have the second-best roster in international hoops.Instead, Nurse is coaching short-handed with Orlando Magic backup Khem Birch inheriting the leadership role, with Joseph only arriving at the last minute. A real opportunity missed.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

SENEGAL

Key player: Babacar Toure
Head coach: Moustapha Gaye
How they qualified: 2nd in African group
Previous World Cup best: 14th (1978)
FIBA ranking: 37

Outlook: With a head coach who has been at the helm for less than a month, the Senegal team have sustained some bruising friendly defeats. In a tough group, even running one opponent close would be a triumph.

Prediction: Classification Round (17th-32nd)

LITHUANIA

Key player: Domantis Sabonis
Head coach: Dainius Adomaitis
How they qualified: 1st in European group
Previous World Cup best: 3rd (2010)
FIBA ranking: 6

Outlook: As solid as ever, the Green Machine and its spectacular fans want an Olympic berth and progress behind the maturing Sabonis. Older stagers like Jonas Valanciunas and Jonas Maciulis provide a potent set of bigs that has looked extremely sharp, and it’s a group that knows one another very well.

Prediction: Quarterfinal

Key player: Joe Ingles Head coach: Andrej Lemanis How they qualified: 1st. in Asian group Previous World Cup best: 5th (twice) FIBA ranking: 11 Outlook: Ending the USA’s long unbeaten run has the Boomers seeking more history with a core group that has seen everything together and won’t cry over the non-availability of Ben Simmons. Look for newbie Jock Landale to make his mark too on a team whose chemistry cultivates a real title contender. Prediction: Final

Group H Forecast: 1. , 2. Lithuania , 3. Canada, 4. Senegal

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