The men’s side of the 2016 Olympic volleyball begins Sunday with what appears on paper to show two balanced pools.
In Pool A is world top-ranked Brazil, No. 4 Italy, No. 5 USA, No. 11 France, No. 12 Canada and No. 26 Mexico.
Pool B includes No. 2 Poland, No. 3 Russia, No. 6 Argentina, No. 10 Iran, No. 17 Cuba and No. 20 Egypt.
But things aren’t always exactly as they seem.
The USA is coming off a FIVB World League tournament in which the Americans were swept by Italy and then beaten in five Brazil. France is playing extremely well and Canada, by all accounts, is fielding its best team in almost 20 years.
And on the other side, who knows what to expect from Russia, a team that has dealt with drug-question uncertainty the past month? And Cuba, with most of its top players in jail in Sweden, should be a shell of its former self.
In the Olympic format, the top four teams advance but in the quarterfinals, the top finishers play the No. 4s, and the 2s and 3s criss-cross. So where you finish matters, more than just advancing.
It’s a safe bet to figure Brazil, Poland, Russia and Argentina advance from Pool B.
But Pool A?
“It’s conceivable that the Americans could struggle to make it out,” said Kevin Barnett, the two-time Olympian who is serving as the volleyball analyst for NBC.
The first match against Canada is critical, Barnett said.
“It’s a pretty scary situation for a United States team that has started slow in a lot of matches. If they let a confident, happy-to-be-there, stoked with a nothing-to-lose Canadian team get going, it will be tough. Watch that first match and you might know if the U.S. makes the quarterfinals or not.”
The USA has eight first-time Olympians on its roster. But Hugh McCutcheon, who led the USA to its last gold medal, in 2008 in Beijing, said that’s not the biggest issue.
“They also have a nice blend of youth and experience,” McCutcheon said. “This is Reid (Priddy)’s fourth Games and David Lee’s third. They know how to be successful at this level. Their leadership will help a ton. “
The USA, which also won gold in 1984, placed fourth in 2012 in London under then-head coach Alan Knipe. One of his assistants, John Speraw, is now the head coach.
“Canada is going to be incredibly ready, so we’re going to have to be in order to win that match,” Speraw said. “They went five with Poland and Iran at the Olympic qualifier in Japan a couple of months ago, so this is a team that is very, very capable. They’re very experienced and have a great head coach (Glen Hoag) and they’re ready to win, which they’ve done in the World and at the qualifier. So we have our hands full across the board.”
Serving has been a tough go for the Americans, especially in those losses in the World League.
“You have to pass the ball and the United States lost the serve-and-pass battle handily in the last two matches of the World League and at times in the preliminary rounds,” Barnett said.
“It was very obvious that they were overmatched, not only in the way they were receiving serve but in what they were dishing out. So I’m concerned about them losing that battle, which in today’s volleyball world you cannot do and expect success.”
After playing Canada, the USA faces, in order with days off in between, Italy, Brazil, France (which includes one of Speraw’s former players when coached at UC Irvine, Kevin Tillie) and Mexico.
“We saw when the U.S. controlled the ball their middle attack was great. They will hurt teams in the middle,” Barnett said.
Balance and confidence, of course, will be keys.
“We’re still a young team navigating this environment for the first time,” Speraw said. “We’re taking eight guys who are first-time Olympians to the Games. We’re just trying to get everyone confident and to be aggressive so we can play so we can step out on the court and play good, tough volleyball.”