Published November 20, 2014
While defending champion Spain tries to brush off the label of favorite ahead of the basketball world championships, the United States is doing its best to make it stick.
The two teams are playing an exhibition game Sunday — a rematch of the 2008 Olympic final won by the Americans — in what could be perhaps the best indicator of who will carry the tag into the tournament in Turkey beginning Aug. 28.
"To have an advantage mentally, I guess, that's what some teams do," U.S. forward Lamar Odom said Friday. "(But) the champion is always considered the favorite."
No one from the Olympic gold-medal team will return for the Americans, whose inexperience is its biggest problem in a tournament that it hasn't won in 16 years.
"We're going to play at our best and we're going to try. Whatever other people think of us, whether we're favorites or a B team or we're going to lose, it doesn't make any difference," coach Mike Krzyzewski Friday said at the "Magic Box" in Madrid, where the Americans trained. "I never pay attention to what anyone says."
Spain guard Sergio Llull said the U.S. team was "incognito as always in these types of tournaments," referring to the less well-known players on the roster.
"While they didn't call up those players most fans recognize as their biggest stars, they're still playing with players that are stars in the NBA," Llull said.
Krzyzewski put Argentina and Greece alongside Spain as tournament favorites, although he believes the defending champions' experience, camaraderie and "sensational" passing game will make Sunday's game a lot different than the last one.
"We don't have our whole system in yet — what we're going to do offensively and defensively — whereas Spain already knows," Krzyzewski said. "Exhibitions are somewhat like scrimmages — you want to win, no question. But we still want to take a look at everybody. It'll be a big game but it won't be bigger than if we play in Turkey, and that's what we have to gear ourselves up for."
Spain's players were reserving judgment on the Americans until at least Saturday, when the United States was scheduled to play Lithuania.
"It'll show us where we are and what level we are at going into the worlds," Spain guard Ricky Rubio said. "It'll help us get the title again."
Spain will be without Gasol, who decided to skip the tournament after a long season that saw him help the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship. But the European champions have a steady fill of NBA players in Rudy Fernandez, Jose Manuel Calderon and Gasol's brother Marc, who came up big in the final victory over Greece four years ago with Pau injured.
Fernandez and Gasol trained normally on Friday after picking up leg injuries, while U.S. guard Stephen Curry should also be available from a left ankle injury after practicing Friday.
"Spain, that's the team to beat," American guard Derrick Rose said. "They last won it. They've got the players, they're veterans and they have a passion for the game and to win."
Krzyzewski also warned his young team about letting emotions get away from them after a brawl involving Greece and Serbia on Thursday ended with a player being held in jail overnight.
"The passion that comes out when you're playing that country's team on their soil — it's at the highest level," Krzyzewski said.