Everyone expects Team USA and Spain to meet for gold in a couple of weeks, but the journey is important. How will we get there?
After previewing all 12 teams involved in the Olympic men's basketball tournament in London -- it begins at 4 a.m. ET Sunday with the all-Africa battle between Nigeria and Tunisia -- it's time to actually figure out what's going to happen. No, that doesn't mean "watch the games and report on the results," though we'll do that. This is the Internet. This is the time for predictions.
And not just any ol' predictions. Some stone cold iron-forged gold-plated locks.
And now, about the basketball!
There's no question that Team USA is the overwhelming favorite. Nothing that France or Lithuania have done in the warm-up schedule have changed that. Argentina, however, looks ready to party. With that in mind, here are my picks for Group A. The top four advance.
Team USA (5-0)
Argentina will be the only team to push Team USA, but will fall in the final game of group play as the Americans need to clinch the No. 1 seed heading into the knockouts to delay a meeting with Spain as long as possible. France will fall in its opening two games against the United States and Argentina, but will win out to move on. Lithuania will lose to all three teams above it. Nigeria will beat Tunisia in the opener and come close against Lithuania or France, because Ike Diogu, duh!
Spain is the Team USA of Group B. HOWEVER, Spain has struggled to give maximum effort in group play in recent tournaments. In 2010, it cost Spain a chance at a FIBA Worlds medal. In 2011, the team was able to overcome lackluster group play to take gold at EuroBasket. The Spaniards can't afford to lilt through games in the Olympics. The competition is too strong.
Great Britain (1-4)
Spain has convinced me over the past two summers that it only really plays up to its considerable potential in the knockout rounds. As such, I think it will drop a game to Brazil or Russia, two strong teams that seem to be clicking. But I also think that Brazil and Russia are each independently fallible enough to drop a game against a non-Spain combatant. In the end, I think Brazil beats Spain, Russia beats Brazil, and Spain beats Russia. Spain gets the No. 1 seed by virtue of point differential after running it up on Britain.
I wanted to give Britain a pair of wins and a berth to the knockouts, but Australia has looked pretty good. So a win over China will have to do.
Team USA (A-1) vs. Australia (B-4)
No contest. Team USA is too good.
France (A-3) vs. Brazil (B-2)
This is already my favorite match of the tournament, and it may not even happen. Despite my affinity for Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum and basically everything about France, I think Brazil has a stronger squad this year, and will move ahead.
Spain (B-1) vs. Lithuania (A-4)
Spain is better than Lithuania top to bottom. I don't see Spain losing a knockout to a non-elite team. (The question is whether any of the opponents other than Team USA play like elite teams.)
Russia (B-3) vs. Argentina (A-2)
As neat as Russia looks, I think Argentina is well-prepared to make a deep run. There are maybe 3-4 players in the tournament who can slow down Manu Ginobili, and all of them except for Batum and Luol Deng play for Team USA. (I'm nodding toward Andre Iguodala and LeBron James.)
Team USA vs. Brazil
Another potentially great match. Marcelo Huertas is a monster, and Brazil has size to bother the Americans. But there's no one on Team Brazil to handle LeBron ... or Kevin Durant ... or Kobe Bryant ... or Carmelo Anthony. Team USA waltzing away.
Spain vs. Argentina
EXCITED ABOUT THE OLYMPICS YET? What a lovely pairing: Manu vs. Rudy Fernandez, Pablo Prigioni vs. Jose Calderon, Luis Scola vs. Pau Gasol, Carlos Delfino vs. Juan Carlos Navarro ... this is the most Barcelona basketball game ever, if it happens.
Brazil vs. Argentina
Little brother finally handles business against big brother -- this is basketball, not geopolitics -- on the grand stage. Brazil medals.
Team USA vs. Spain
The game we've been waiting four years for. I predict an insanely close game -- maybe overtime -- but a LeBron James clutch moment or two as the Year Of The King continues. Team USA wins.
Be sure to follow our full coverage of the men's basketball tournament throughout the Olympics.