Team USA's first foray into basketball at the 2012 London Olympics on Sunday will be anything but a cakewalk.
No, the Americans aren't taking on Spain, which tested the Yanks' might in Beijing in 2008 on the way to a silver medal. USA Basketball won't have that distinct privilege of taking on the Spaniards in a meaningful context again until the knockout rounds, at the earliest.
Neither will they see Argentina, the gold medalist from the 2004 Athens Games, until the final game of group play on August 6.
As it happens, America's mighty challenger on the hardwood will be none other than France, which comes into the 30th Olympiad as, perhaps, the most dangerous team on the docket.
France? You mean those lovers of wine, cheese and all things Maurice Chevalier?
Oui (that's "yes" in French, by the way).
The French are on arguably their finest run of play ever on the court at the moment. A runner-up finish to Spain in last season's EuroBasket guaranteed that they'd be eligible for the Olympics for the first time since 2000, when they took home silver in Sydney.
Not that this year's edition of Les Bleus should be counted on to one-up the millennial squad that featured nary a name that would be familiar to most NBA fans. The 2012 field is far deeper and much stronger than the one found in Australia a dozen years ago, thanks in large part to the precipitous growth of the game around the globe that's persisted since.
Still, Vincent Collet's club could probably wipe the floor with the one that Jean-Pierre de Vincenzi coached to the podium at the most recent turn of the century. All told, the French can boast nine players with some connection to the NBA, though two (Yakhouba Diawara and Mickael Gelabale) have long since seen those ties severed and a third (Florient Pietrus).
Even so, that number would be 10 (seven, if you're only counting current NBAers) if Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah weren't hobbled by a left ankle injury.
Then again, things could be much worse for Les Bleus. They could be without Tony Parker, whose career was nearly jeopardized by an eye injury suffered during a New York nightclub row between Drake and Chris Brown.
Luckily for the French, the star point guard for the San Antonio Spurs will be ready to go on Sunday as part of a delegation includes six members of The Association, second among all national squads behind only Team USA.
And, depending on how you count the club affiliation of Spain's Rudy Fernandez (who's just signed on with Real Madrid), France has that spot all to its lonesome.
In any case, the French team will depend heavily on Parker's talents. Collet runs a system not unlike the one Gregg Popovich currently employs in San Antonio, in which movement away from the ball and Parker's ability to make plays are paramount to its success.
Goggles or no, Parker's signature quickness and craftiness should still be well intact. So long as he can dribble, pass and make the occasional shot, France's chances will be no worse for wear.
Les Bleus' chances aren't entirely tied to Parker, though. In fact, the bulk of the scoring load will likely come from their two young wings, Portland Trail Blazers swingman Nicolas Batum and soon-to-be-Spurs guard Nando De Colo. Batum is France's designated matchup nightmare—a skilled, versatile guard/forward whose game is perfectly suited to FIBA rules and can drain shots from all over the floor.
De Colo, though, may well be the most crucial to the French cause. As Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti points out in his pitch-perfect Olympic preview, De Colo is fully capable of manning either spot in the backcourt, due to his ability to distribute and shoot the ball with equal proficiency.
That skill set makes De Colo a tough player to predict for opposing defenses and, thus, a dangerous weapon for France to wield.
The French frontcourt is nothing for the basketball world to turn its nose up at either. Ronny Turiaf, Kevin Seraphin and Boris Diaw may not constitute the biggest or bulkiest bunch of forwards, but what they lack in sheer size, they make up for in hustle (Turiaf), length (Seraphin) and overall skill (Diaw).
With that particular consortium of talent, Les Bleus should have a clear path out of Group A and on to the knockout stage. Tunisia and Nigeria figure to finish at the bottom of the group, leaving France to duke it out with Team USA, Argentina and Lithuania among the other four spots.
Once there, France may well find itself in position to leave London with a medal. A bronze for the French team should be within range, especially if it can score a quarterfinal tilt against one of the weaker qualifiers from Group B (i.e. Australia or China).
The gold medal, though, is too much to ask for, realistically speaking. The top prize is USA Basketball's to lose, with Spain, Argentina and Brazil pursuing silver.
Not that France can't or won't be knocking at Team USA's door during the gold medal game on August 12th. Rather, the fact that France is even in the discussion for a prize, after going a dozen years between Olympiads, is something of a victory in and of itself.
The world will have a much better idea of France's capabilities as a team when they go head-to-head with Team USA on Sunday. Chances are, what fans will find is a budding European basketball power ready for its long-awaited closeup on the Olympic stage.
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