Basketball begins at the Rio Olympics on August 6th and much of the attention will be on Team USA. Despite playing without Steph Curry and LeBron James, Team USA still has star power in the form of Kevin Durant and should be the heavy favorite to bring home a gold medal.
To a fan of mid-major basketball though, rooting for Team USA can feel a bit like rooting for a perennial powerhouse like Kentucky, Duke, or UNC. You can still feel pride in rooting for them and they will be undoubtedly entertaining. But you might find yourself wanting a talented underdog to support, much in the way you cheer for your favorite mid-major program. Luckily, some former mid-major players will take the court in Rio.
Who should you keep an eye on if watching Team USA leaves you wanting something more? Here's a look.
Known as the Boomers, Australia could fit the role of the "mid-major Cinderella" well. They are relatively talented and could go pretty far in the tournament, but likely will be treated as underdogs in group matches against the United States and France.
They also are loaded with former mid-major players. Former Saint Mary’s guards Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova lead the Boomers’ backcourt with valuable NBA experience. Ryan Broekhoff should also contribute big minutes for Australia, as the former Valparaiso Crusader has begun to put together an excellent career in Europe. Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Kevin Lisch (Saint Louis), and Damian Martin (Loyola Marymount) round out the mid-major representation for the Boomers.
It will be a tough road, but Australia has a mid-major feel and could provide you with your underdog fix during this summer's Olympics.
Domantas Sabonis - Lithuania
Sabonis was one of the biggest names in mid-major basketball this past season. He helped guide Gonzaga to the Sweet Sixteen as an 11-seed and was later drafted by the Orlando Magic (who immediately traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder). Sabonis will be a major threat for Lithuania, who fields a roster with plenty of size. His team has some solid pieces, but Sabonis will have to contend with Spain, Argentina, and the host nation Brazil in the group stage.
Patricio Garino - Argentina
Garino is fresh off of an NIT championship with George Washington and will be looking to make an impact for the Argentinian national team in Rio. His team is littered with NBA talent, most notably Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, so Garino may be overshadowed. But, Garino has gained a larger role for the national team in the past year. He also got experience playing in the NBA Summer League with one of the Orlando Magic’s squads. Garino could surprise some opponents who may be more focused on the bigger name players around him.
Team Nigeria likely won’t pack the same punch as Team Australia, but they too have many former mid-major players rounding out their roster and could surprise some opponents. Among their former mid-majors is Jamal Olasewere, LIU-Brooklyn’s all-time leading scorer. Olasewere is just one of many former mid-majors who could make an impact in Rio for Nigeria and will be battling Chamberlain Oguchi, who spent a year at Illinois State, and Stan Okoye (VMI) for minutes. If you are looking for a true underdog with plenty of mid-major power, Nigeria is your pick.
Paul George - USA
Of course, in the end, patriotism will surpass many mid-major allegiances and lead people toward Team USA. Paul George played at Fresno State, though, so we won’t have to abandon mid-major basketball completely. It is a win-win!