This pool is incredibly top-heavy. The bottom three teams have virtually no chance to win a match against the best three. Expect to see lots of bench players see time in matches in this pool to conserve energy in the battles between the top teams. The last spot in the next round will likely go to Australia, but either of the African teams could upset them under the right circumstances.

1. Russia

The nations league champions should be the favourite to win the entire tournament. They only dropped one set in the entire final round of the VNL and had three players take home awards, including an MVP for Maxim Mikhaylov. And Russia is adding an elite player, libero Alexey Verbov, at their only position of weakness. Thank goodness Alexander Butko, Egor Kliuka, and Dmitry Muserskiy can’t be on the court at the same time due to the FIVB’s foreign-born player limit. The 36-year World Championships drought for Russia could be done by the end of this month.

2. USA

The Americans are rolling with mostly the same squad they brought to the 2016 Olympics. Who knows how much longer Matt Anderson will be a superstar, so it’s important that Team USA doesn’t take his brilliance for granted. The ACL injury that Thomas Jaeschke endured during the nations league and TJ DeFalco’s absence hurts their wing rotation during the group stage so Jake Langlois will have to step up (never thought I would have to write that). And they are bringing 5 middles, which doesn’t exactly help with that problem. It seems like Ben Patch is not part of Speraw’s top lineup, but I’m sure we will see him used frequently in the group stage to rest Matt Anderson. Some tough early matches for the Americans, but at least they will avoid Russia and Serbia in the second round.

3. Serbia

My pick to win the 2018 nations league just barely scraped their way to the final round before being bounced. A disappointing result for a team that is oozing with talent. Serbia will need better performances from setter Nikola Jovovic and outside hitters Uros Kovacevic and Marko Ivovic. Serbia’s biggest advantage over other elite teams is the dominance of their middles. Srecko Lisinac and Marko Podrascanin didn’t get the chance to show their talent in VNL because the passes rarely made it to the net, and even when they did Jovovic struggled to run first tempo. Serbia will still get to the next round with ease and maybe the summer rest will help them play to their potential after that.

4. Australia

Mark Lebedew’s team surprised some teams at nations league despite not being the most talented roster. The young, feisty squad has good height and athleticism, but makes more mistakes then the more polished teams in the tournament. Libero Luke Perry is one of the best in the business, and it is worth watching at least one Australian game for his defense alone. 6’7” setter Arsheep Dosanjh and middle Nemehiah Mote quietly had good nations leagues and should see important roles in this tournament. There is no replacement for experience, but you can guarantee this team will execute well and punch above their weight.

5. Tunisia

After a run of six straight African championship wins by Egypt, Tunisia broke their streak last year by stealing gold. Like Egypt, the vast majority of their roster plays for a couple domestic clubs, in this case, Tunis and Sfaxien. The exception is 22-year opposite Wassim Ben Tara, who had some strong performances backing up Stephen Boyer in Chaumont last season. Tunisia has a shot at beating Australia but has little chance against the top three heavyweights in this pool. Russia, Serbia, and the USA probably won’t even roll out their starting lineups. Maybe Tunisia can take advantage of this to steal a set or two.

6. Cameroon

I wish Cameroon the best of luck in this tournament. It’s not their fault that they went through by far the easiest qualification process. Instead of doing a preview though, here are the teams would probably do better in this tournament:

• Germany

• Estonia

• Czech Republic

• Mexico

• Hungary

• Portugal

• Austria

• Korea

• Turkey

• Ukraine

• Greece

• Slovakia

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