BallinEurope’s Official Fearless Predictions™ for 2012 Olympic basketball will be posted tomorrow, but with the 2012 Olympics opening ceremonies taking place tonight and the men’s competition tipping off on Sunday, BiE got out the virtual calendar to make time for the following seven (or eight) games, matches that should fundamentally shape the greater 30-game picture, the subsequent knockout tournament and the OFPs™ themselves. BiE’s keeping eyes peeled for…

Argentina vs. Lithuania, July 29. The Olympic schedulers decided to place a couple of dandies on day one of men’s basketball play in a pair of games that will send two Group A teams scrambling immediately. Argentina looked impressive in friendlies in general and against Team USA, but this team’s weakness in 2012 is a traditional Lithuania strength.

Against the USA (and while things remained competitive against Spain), Team Argentina had just eight players seeing court time, with a heavy reliance on the NBA trio of Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino. Transitional year or no, Lithuania has recovered from its equally-as-traditional adventure with injuries to build a respectable roster with scoring threats at least 10 deep. It’s unfortunate that Lithuania isn’t getting this game a bit later against a more haggard Argentine side.

• USA vs. France, July 29
• France vs. Argentina, July 31
• Lithuania vs. France, August 2
. France is saddled with probably the second-toughest opening three games (wait ‘til you see whose starting schedule is more grueling; there is no justice) in this Olympics, with the US, Argentina and Lithuania – not unlikely semifinalists all – on the slate.

Despite this early marathon, Les Bleus are still getting lotsa hype while sportsbooks are giving them third-shortest odds to win the tournament (said odds are around 28/1 or 30/1, but still), but BiE ain’t buying it. Perhaps BiE’s overrating the significance of one player, but the loss of top rebounder/defensive lynchpin/glue guy Joakim Noah may prove to be the biggest hole on a national team roster this side of Dwight Howard.

• Russia vs Brazil, August 2. BallinEurope’s choice for The Game of The First Round. If it’s possible for prospective no. 2 and 3 seeds to be underrated, these are textbook examples. Assuming that neither side pulls off the “upset” of Spain – which is not exactly a safe assumption, given performances in friendlies and that ever-memorable meeting at Eurobasket 2007 (see highlights below) with David Blatt’s boys against a similar Spanish side – this game will most assuredly determine final positioning for the knockout tournament.

No matter the ramifications going into the game, however, this should be one excellent 40 minutes with evenly-matched sides boasting excellent international-play point guards plus athleticism and physicality to spare in the frontcourt. Should be a good one.

• Spain vs. Russia, August 4. Lucky, lucky Spain. The defending European champions open against China, Australia and Great Britain to tune up for meetings with Group B’s other big dogs, Brazil and Russia. This alone could push Spain over the top in close ones, and a 5-0 run is not at all inconceivable. On the other hand, if Blatt can avoid having this game turn into a track meet – not Sergio Scariolo’s preferred style, by the way – Team Russia has a solid chance of shaking up the group and the tournament bracket.

Imagine the hype. It should run something like this: Russia versus Spain! A tactical battle between Blatt and Sergio Scariolo! A grind-it-out, edge-of-your-seat matchup! A rematch of ’07! The length of Andrei Kirilenko and the CSKA Moscow-heavy Russians against three NBA-starting big men! For first place in Group B! Et cetera!

• Great Britain vs China, August 6. Poor, poor, *poor* Great Britain. Recall Eurobasket 2011: As a last-minute addition when FIBA officials decided to expand the field to 24 teams, the Brits were put in a monster group. As though their chances for advancement out of pool play weren’t long enough already, schedulers had Team Britain play Lithuania, Turkey and Spain, the toughest opening run of that tournament and one which essentially eliminated the team before the game one programs came off the printer.

And now for something completely different? Not. After months of negotiation, wrangling and (most assuredly) pleading with the International Olympic Committee and FIBA, Britain’s automatic entry into the 2012 Games were assured – along with this tournament’s, um, most challenging opening three matches: against Russia, Brazil and Spain. Sigh.

Nevertheless. Pops, Luol and the boys went on to surprise observers of the Lithuanian tournament by taking consecutive wins against Portugal and Poland to finish fourth in its group. Should Britain manage to overcome Australia in game four, a second win here would clinch them the no. 4 spot, advancement and a probable date with Team USA in the first knockout game. Oh well.

If nothing’s at stake for Team Britain in this one, they’ll nevertheless be playing with pride for their first-ever Olympic basketball win. And if there’s one quality this team is long on, it’s pride.

• (Plus maybe) Argentina vs. USA, August 6. Imagine these teams meeting with 4-0 records while Ginobili channels 2004 … a classic in the making.

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