FIBA World Cup Knockout Round Preview
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The 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup group stage has come to an end, and the eight remaining teams finally get a brief respite after playing five games in six days. The emphasis should sit on “brief” as teams that win their quarterfinal match-up will ultimately finish their tournaments with three games in three days.
For these knockout rounds, the format was mildly unconventional as the top two teams in each group could be drawn against either the third- or fourth-placed team in the opposite group; regardless, the top two teams in the same group were placed in opposite sides of the bracket. The knockout bracket is structured as follows:
Let’s preview the coming days’ exciting action which for our American readers will start tonight and air on ESPN+!
Top of Bracket
Belgium-Australia (6:30 a.m. ET, Thursday)
The leading story of this game is the fact that Emma Meesseman is out for the tournament with a calf injury. While she took on a more passive offensive role in the games she did play, recording more assists than points for the tournament, the team definitely still revolved around her scoring ability and facilitation. Moreover, Belgium’s back-up post players are exceptionally young, and while this is not the Massey twins’ first international experience, they are now thrust into a role beyond any they have experienced before.
In the one game Belgium played without Meesseman, they remained competitive with China for three quarters before the wheels ultimately fell off. This leaves more responsibility with center Kyara Linskens and the guard triumvirate of Julie Allemand, Julie Vanloo, and Hind Ben Abdelkader. Linskens has scored around the basket, Allemand has still brought her steady facilitation with a bit of scoring punch, and Vanloo has been on an absolute shooting tear, but it is still a question of whether it will be enough.
Speaking of shooting tears, Australia is shooting 40% from the three-point line on over 23 attempts per game. While it has still been occasionally evident that the home team lacks a natural point guard, the squad has not actually recorded an exorbitant number of turnovers (14 per game) with Stephanie Talbot stepping up with ball-handling responsibilities. Talbot has also done this playing a significant number of minutes at the shooting guard position and being deployed as a defensive Swiss Army knife.
Ezi Magbegor has also proved her mettle as a two-way star with some emphatic blocks, great finishes, and strong interior passing, while Marianna Tolo has shown her offensive versatility as a rolling and posting threat who can also shoot jumpers from the high post.
Despite the attention their shooters have commanded and the team’s overall size, Australia has only shot 42% inside the arc. This is an area where the team’s lack of ball-handling may indeed be manifesting.
Ultimately, it is their long, athletic defense that has carried the day, notably leading the tournament in blocks, little surprise for a team whose shortest player is the 5-foot-10 Sami Whitcomb. The possible return of Rebecca Allen, who missed the last two games with an ankle injury, would only magnify their strengths as shooters and athletes.
It seems likely that Australia’s collective length could cause problems for Belgium’s guard corps, both in terms of breaking down defenses and finishing around the rim. Australia should also be able to manufacture interior touches for whichever post players are not being guarded by Linskens and therefore possess a size mismatch, and the fact that Australia is second in the tournament in free throw attempts behind only the USA could strain Belgium’s limited depth. The fact that Australia has not really utilized small line-ups throughout the tournament should not necessarily be an issue against Belgium. I have difficulty seeing a Belgium victory.
China-France (4:00 a.m. ET, Thursday)
China may not have fulfilled the wildest possible expectations, but they have certainly acquitted themselves well so far. They drubbed Korea, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Puerto Rico, pulled away from the Meesseman-less Belgium team, and never quite allowed the USA to escape into blowout territory. They have not been as balanced in big games as might have been expected, but Li Meng, Wang Siyu, and Han Xu all exploded against the USA, and Li Yueru has certainly had her moments as well.
China has also made 41% of their threes and, while Group A admittedly lent itself more easily to this sort of exorbitant offensive outputs than Group B, is shooting 56% inside the arc as well. If China can generate production from more of their bench (besides whichever center happened not to start), they should be in the driver’s seat in this half of the bracket.
France has had their fair share of struggles in the tournament. A particular problem has been outside shooting. The team has only converted 24% of their three-pointers despite featuring a roster with several talented shooters, and wings Sarah Michel and Mamignan Toure are the only players individually above 30% from beyond the arc. This should regress upward toward the mean, even considering the team’s somewhat limited ball-handling ability making it a bit harder to generate open looks.
A major portion of what has kept the team afloat has been the two-way brilliance of Gabby Williams, who leads the team with more than 15 points per game and who is shooting 58% on two-pointers and also helping the team rank second in the competition in steals behind only the USA. Point guard Marine Fauthoux has also been able to score at both interior levels even as she has contributed to the team’s outside shooting woes. It will be fundamental for the team to stay afloat when either of these players sits—they are especially poor with Fauthoux off the court.
The immense size of China’s center platoon may prove problematic for France. True centers Ana Tadic and Helena Ciak have combined for fewer than 12 minutes per game between them, and the team may need a creative defensive gameplan if coach Jean-Aimé Toupane does not trust those two players more in the quarterfinal.
On the other hand, the shooting of Alexia Chartereau and Iliana Rupert and the driving ability of Marieme Badiane all could stretch Li and Han at the other end and cause match-up problems for China.
It will also be interesting to monitor who Gabby Williams is matched up against defensively. China runs multiple ballhandlers too regularly for Williams to shut down their offense by herself, so she will presumably be slotted against Li Meng, who has had some electric offensive performances in this tournament. On the other hand, Williams’s versatility could still be used as an asset, especially since Michel and Toure are not exactly monopositional defenders themselves.
Lauren Jackson may prove especially important in a hypothetical China-Australia match-up in the semifinal. In addition to the intangible value having such a legendary player provides, Jackson has been physical defensively, committing many fouls in the process, while being at her best offensively from beyond the three-point line. She has not demonstrated that she can play many minutes in this tournament, but a key stint from her could cause significant problems for China’s centers and/or demand a cross-match, which has its own knock-on effects. Out on the perimeter, whichever defensive strategy Australia uses against Belgium’s guards may prove instructive for the potential match-up against China.
As good as Jackson and Marianna Tolo have been, they both have had a certain amount of trouble stepping out to the perimeter defensively. France’s combination of stretchy post players and athletic ball-handlers in their starting unit could limit how much Sandy Brondello can play them, consequently requiring even more from Ezi Magbegor in particular.
Bottom of Bracket
Puerto Rico-Canada (12:30 a.m. ET, Thursday)
Puerto Rico has already made a historical run, winning their first two World Cup games in history on the way to their first spot in the quarterfinals. Two players who were not in the national program during the Olympics have been absolutely fundamental to the team’s success: Arella Guirantes and Mya Hollingshed. Guirantes provides a true ball-handling wing who has brought a new dimension as someone who can use her speed and physicality to finish at the rim and draw fouls, and she is tied with A’ja Wilson atop the points per game leaderboard. Hollingshed may still be an undersized post player, but she has provided a stronger interior defense than Puerto Rico has had in some time while also shooting an electric 48% from the three-point line on 5 attempts per game, stretching out opposing centers.
Meanwhile, veteran point guard Jennifer O’Neill remains ready and able to fire off the dribble at less than a moment’s notice. The team has been able to play a 5-out system for long stretches of the game, either when Isalys Quinones shares the floor with Hollingshed or in ultra-small line-ups, and they have played better defense than what they generally have been able to muster in the past. However, the team remains really small, and there are questions about their depth.
The questions for Canada heading into the tournament revolved around how Kia Nurse would perform and how the team would balance offensive touches. In the games so far, Nurse has only averaged 20 minutes per game, and she has played well but has not exhausted the scorekeepers herself. However, the team has found sparks from other places.
Bridget Carleton is herself on a three-point shooting tear, making 48% of her nearly 6 attempts per game and revealing more comfort off the dribble than she gets to show in the WNBA, and combo guard Nirra Fields has averaged 12 points per game while showcasing the off-the-dribble scoring we have come to expect from her.
Meanwhile, center Kayla Alexander is second in the competition in rebounds behind only the eliminated Sika Koné of Mali, and she is averaging a double-double alongside more than one steal and one block per game.
Like several other Group B teams, Canada has also made its mark on the defensive end, holding three separate opponents to 60 points or fewer. However, their depth is also an issue as coach Victor Lapeña has only trusted seven players to play at least ten minutes per game.
Both teams’ limited depth could lead to problems if players get into foul trouble. This is especially problematic for Puerto Rico as Canada has several post players who, while not necessarily featured on the block, certainly play with enough physicality to tag their match-ups with a few whistles. This could be an especially valuable role for Laeticia Amihere who can overwhelm opponents with her athleticism even if she does struggle to finish the opportunities she creates for herself. On the other hand, it will be interesting to assess whether Carleton can bring as much as she has offensively if she is tasked with stopping Guirantes at the other end.
Finally, Puerto Rico has been willing to play four-guard line-ups with Guirantes as their second-biggest player. Canada has not yet been willing to do so even though Carleton has received occasional minutes there in the WNBA, and it will be interesting to see how the team counters such an alignment.
USA-Serbia (10 p.m. ET, Wednesday)
The USA has been simply dominant so far this tournament. Any concerns that the team may not be as big as they typically are have been eliminated courtesy of how athletic they are. Swarming perimeter defense has blitzed opponents, and the team has often leapt out to spectacular runs to start games. While a Meesseman-featuring Belgium and China have both kept the final score within 20 points, only the latter was truly close throughout the duration of the game.
A triple-post line-up featuring Thomas, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson together has been especially troubling for opponents, and Thomas is averaging more than three steals per game. Elsewhere, Chelsea Gray has continued her spectacular form as a shooter since her late arrival from the WNBA finals, shooting 63% from the field despite nearly half her attempts being three-pointers, and Kelsey Plum has been drawing fouls and making three-pointers at a high rate over the same span. All that being said, the magic numbers for the USA might be their exceptional assist to turnover ratio of 2.67 and the fact that they actually record fewer turnovers than steals.
For Serbia, the key player has clearly been Yvonne Anderson. Averaging five free throw attempts and more than six assists per game, her ability to attack the defense has been absolutely critical for a Serbian offense that falters whenever she has to take a seat. Luckily for Serbia, Anderson has had the stamina to average 34 minutes per game so far in the tournament.
Post player Tina Krajisnik has been the able co-pilot as expected, anchoring the defense and providing scoring both in the post and as a mid-range jump shooter. While no clear third star has emerged, a variety of contributors have stepped up for Serbia. Shooting wing Sasa Cado has lived up to her reputation, making three three-pointers per game, while forwards Ivana Raca and Kristina Topuzovic have demonstrated their own respective brands of aggressive basketball. Defensively, the team has mixed in a certain amount of their trademark full-court pressure, albeit not constantly.
In order for Serbia to pull out the victory, a lot needs to go right. For one, Anderson may need to play all 40 minutes, and another ballhandler really ought to emerge to cope with the USA’s endless barrage of quick, long players. In addition, Cado and at least one other player probably need to go on a hot streak from beyond the arc; wing Jovana Nogic seems to be the most likely candidate, although veteran shooting guard Nevena Jovanovic feels due to recover from a frigid cold streak. Finally, it is unlikely that full-court pressure will do anything but enable the USA, and Serbia will need to find the right defensive scheme that can defend their opponents’ stars wherever they may be on the court.
The group stage game between the USA and Puerto Rico was a brutal 106-42 drubbing—and that came before the arrivals of A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, and Kelsey Plum—but the combination of increased familiarity and simple regression to the mean suggests that it is unlikely that Puerto Rico would shoot as poorly as 4-for-24 (17%) from beyond the three-point line. That being said, Puerto Rico might need to shoot even more three-pointers than that to leverage the variance they would need in order to pull out the upset.
With Bridget Carleton and Laeticia Amihere filling the forward spots, Canada may be as well equipped as anyone to defend that Stewart-Thomas-Wilson line-up mentioned earlier. In addition, Nirra Fields and Shay Colley have enough speed, ball-handling ability, and pull-up shooting skill that they may be somewhat less stressed against the USA’s aggressive pressure than other teams. That being said, the question is whether Canada can concoct such a grouping that also stresses the USA rather than simply plugs holes against that fearsome trio.
Australia over Belgium
China over France
Canada over Puerto Rico
USA over Serbia
China over Australia
USA over Canada
Australia over Canada
USA over China