First, the good news: Spain's 2012 Olympic men's basketball team returns almost every player from the squad that broke through in Beijing.
It was there, in 2008, that the Spaniards pushed the vaunted Americans to the brink in a classic title game tilt and secured a place in international basketball's upper echelon.
Now the bad news: One player won't make the return trip, Ricky Rubio. The floppy-haired passing savant that thrilled Beijing with his Maravich-esque court vision will miss London with an ACL tear.
Back to good news: The Spaniards are one of the few teams deep enough to cope with such a high-profile loss. To wit, Rubio played only 15 minutes a game in the 2011 European Championship and shot just 23 percent from the field. Spain can beat Europe's best without him.
But can they beat America's best without him?
The answer lies in the post. Spain has three big bodies—Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka—that can bang with the best in the world, and they'll need that length to overcome the star-spangled Goliath.
The Spaniards have not, to my knowledge, released a preliminary roster for the 2012 Olympics. So in lieu of confirmed names I'm giving you the twelve players I predict will make the team:
— Jose Calderon (PG, 6'4", Toronto Raptors, U.S.A.)
— Juan Carlos Navarro (PG/SG, 6'4", FC Barcelona Basquet, Spain)
— Raul Lopez (PG, 6'0", Bilbao Basket, Spain)
— Sergio Llull (SG, 6'4", Real Madrid Balencesto, Spain)
— Victor Sada (SG, 6'4", FC Barcelona Basquet, Spain)
— Fernando San Emeterio (SG, 6'6", Caja Laboral Baskonia, Spain)
— Rudy Fernandez (SF, 6'6", Denver Nuggets, U.S.A.)
— Felipe Reyes (PF, 6'9", Real Madrid Balencesto, Spain)
— Victor Claver (PF, 6'9", Valencia BC, Spain)
— Serge Ibaka (PF, 6'10", Oklahoma City Thunder, U.S.A.)
— Pau Gasol (C, 7'0", Los Angeles Lakes, U.S.A.)
— Marc Gasol (C, 7'1", Memphis Grizzlies, U.S.A.)
Starters: Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro
Reserves: Sergio Llull, Victor Sada, Fernando San Emeterio, Raul Lopez
— Juan Carlos Navarro might be a forgotten man stateside after his flameout with the Memphis Grizzlies, but he remains a star on the international stage. In Eurobasket 2011, Navarro was second on Team Spain in minutes to Marc Gasol and first in total points scored. He is La Roja's first scoring option on the perimeter and a key to stretching the floor.
— The primary ball-handler should be Jose Calderon, a veteran of seven NBA seasons who has become one of the game's better passers over the past two seasons in Toronto.
— After Calderon the pack thins, and Spain needs one of its four reserve guards to give it the 15-to-20 minutes Rubio would have provided had he stayed healthy. Sergio Llull and Victor Sada are the prime candidates to fill that role.
— Llull is the better athlete and the only player on the roster capable of replicating some of Rubio's straight-line speed. Sada is older and the more experienced pro. Neither participated in the 2008 games.
— For the fourth guard spot, I chose Raul Lopez over the younger, flashier Sergio Rodriguez. Lopez played on the '08 team, and I'm betting coach Sergio Scariolo wants at least three guards on the roster with Olympic experience.
By the Numbers:
90.5 — Juan Carlos Navarro's free throw shooting percentage at Eurobasket 2011. His 42 attempts were second on the team.
Starter: Rudy Fernandez
Reserves: Victor Claver, Felipe Reyes
— Rudy Fernandez's health is key. The only certifiable swing man on Spain's roster underwent back surgery at the end of March and could miss the NBA playoffs. Doctors say he should be ready for the Olympics, but that's if all goes well.
— Without Fernandez, Spain gets even thinner at a position where the U.S. dominates. No one expects Fernandez to go tit-for-tat with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, but he at least gives the Spaniards some scoring at the three.
— Of the two reserves, Felipe Reyes is the one to watch. He gave Spain good minutes off the bench in Euro 2011 and was the team's second leading rebounder in Beijing. At 32, the 6'9" Cordoba native is starting to slow, but he remains a valuable piece for Sergio Scariolo's squad.
By the Numbers:
11 — Years since Felipe Reyes earned his first major international medal with the Spanish national team, a bronze at the 2001 FIBA European Championship.
Starters: Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol
Reserve: Serge Ibaka
— The Spaniards classify both Gasol brothers as centers on their FIBA roster and I won't quibble. The point here is that Spain can and will start two seven-footers on its front line, with the 6'10" Serge Ibaka playing a key role in reserve.
— Compare that to the American frontcourt and it's the only place where one could argue Spain has the man-by-man advantage. I'm not saying Spain does—I'd still lean toward Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and whomever Mike Krzyzewski chooses between LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyson Chandler and Blake Griffin—but at least it's debate.
— And against the rest of the world, Gasol, Gasol and Ibaka should do serious damage. That trio provides a rare combination of size and skill in a tournament with few back-to-the-basket bigs.
By the Numbers:
790 — NBA games played by Pau Gasol, the most by any Spanish-born player. Second place in that category belongs to Wally Szczerbiak, who tallied 651 games.
Aito Garcia Reneses did wonders with the 2008 squad after the dismissal of head man Pepu Hernandez mere months before the games.
The Italian-born Sergio Scariolo then took the reins for good not long after Spain's Olympic run.
Scariolo has been a steady hand in the years since, guiding Spain to consecutive Eurobasket championships. Buttressed by that success, Scariolo won't have to do much tinkering with the Spanish roster.
There should be some interest in who he chooses to replace Ricky Rubio, but it won't be of vital importance. Whomever is chosen will likely take on a backup role.
Early in the Olympic tournament it becomes apparent that addition of Serge Ibaka, who became a Spanish citizen in 2011, means more to this team’s success than the loss of Ricky Rubio.
With Ibaka and the Gasol brothers dominating down low and an improved Jose Calderon playing maestro in a well-oiled offensive machine, the Spaniards trounce through group play.
In the knockout round Spain withstands challenges from top contenders like France and Brazil to set up a title-game rematch against the U.S.A.
Once there, Spain’s prior finals experience and punishing frontcourt helps them shock Uncle Sam and secure the country’s first basketball gold medal.
Spain misses Ricky Rubio’s playmaking creativity and the offense becomes stagnant in the halfcourt. Meanwhile, Spain’s bigs struggle to defend stretch fours and wing players that can fill it up from outside.
The Spaniards—who allowed France to shoot 46 percent from three in the teams’ two Eurobasket meetings—fall victim to a hot-shooting opponent in the quarterfinals. And just like that, an unforgiving single-elimination tournament turns Spain’s golden dreams into fifth-place mush.
Spain will finish...
I'm sure the Spaniards will talk a big game about their gold-medal aspirations, but let's be real—the U.S. squad has more talent and fewer holes. Even before losing Rubio, running with the Americans was going to be a struggle.
But there's more to life than first place, regardless of what your overcompensating middle school gym teacher says. A second-place finish would reaffirm the statement made in Beijing and prove that Spain has the depth to compete without one of its top stars.
Not that it will be easy, mind you. France and Argentina pose a stiff test, and Brazil isn't far behind.
I give Spain the edge over each of those squads based on its frontcourt depth. The Gasol brothers are a lethal offensive combo and Serge Ibaka can body up any team's best post threat.
Spain can defend the paint and attack it, and that will carry La Roja to a second consecutive title game appearance.
Nicknames: La ÑBA, La Roja
Coach: Sergio Scariolo
Potential Nickname for Coach: Sergio Scariolo Spice
Best Olympic Finish: Silver (2008, 1984)
FIBA World Rank: Second
How They Qualified for the Olympics: Won Eurobasket 2011
Oldest Player: Felipe Reyes (31)
Youngest Player: Victor Claver (23)
Got Highlights? Of course. Here are the highlights from the second half of their epic gold medal showdown with the Americans in 2008.
Fun-ish Basketball-Related Fact: In 1983, Wallace Bryant became the first Spanish-born player to appear in an NBA game.