In 1992, the Dream Team—stocked with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan, among other NBA super-duper-stars—stormed through the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, beating opponents by an average of 43.8 points per game. The gold medal wasn't just guaranteed for the Americans, it was a birthright.
Twenty years later, after being humbled by a sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Championships, a bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics, and a third-place finish in the 2006 World Championships, we've seen enough to know that the U.S. will need to scrape and claw their way to a gold medal this time around.
After all, as SI's Chris Mannix wrote, "there isn't a soul affiliated with that [2008 Olympic] group that would describe that process as anything other than grueling."
And that team had Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony in its starting lineup. That team had Dwyane Wade as a sixth man.
This team has Lamar Odom as its starting center. 'Nuff said.
So, if Team USA doesn't claim the gold, who might? Check out these five other favorites for the medal podium this week.
After all suspensions were served after the little chair-throwing incident from the preliminary round, Greece went back to focusing on basketball, and just in time. Thanks to two losses in the preliminary round, Greece drew a Round of 16 matchup against Spain, one of the pre-tournament favorites for the gold medal.
Greece couldn't stop Ersan Ilysaova of Turkey, who scored 26 points against them, in their Group C matchup. In their final game of group play, the Greeks couldn't muster their "A game" against Russia, and fell to the third seed in Group C.
That seeding change meant everything, as they found out Saturday. The Spaniards—the defending world champions—were intent on not getting knocked out in the Round of 16. After a closely-fought battle, the Spanish team finished off the Greeks thanks to a few costly turnovers in the final minutes.
Had Greece survived the Spanish buzzsaw, they could have challenged Team USA with their outside shooting; however, Spain handled Team USA's dirty work before the U.S. boys ever got their shot.
Lithuania enters its round of 16 game against China on Monday having gone undefeated in its group round, upsetting Spain and France en route to the top seed in Group D.
Linas Kleiza, the former Denver Nuggets player who signed with the Toronto Raptors this summer, has been the star for Lithuania thus far. He has averaged 17.4 points and a team-high 6.8 rebounds per game.
Lithuania doesn't have Zydrunas Ilgauskas at its disposal this summer. Potential 2011 lottery pick Donatas Motiejunas is also sitting out of the World Championships, leaving the Lithuanians a bit short-handed.
The Lithuanian team already scrimmaged Team USA in the weeks leading up to the World Championships, with the U.S. team escaping with a 77-61 victory over the Lithuanians on August 21. But that was before the Lithuanians upset both France and Spain in the group round.
Lithuania handed France its first defeat in the group round on Wednesday, a day after eking out a three-point victory over Spain, the defending world champions.
While rumors started flying about Spain tanking their first game against France to set themselves up for a better bracket, it's doubtful that anyone believes Spain intentionally lost to Lithuania.
Assuming Lithuania beats China, they'll face the winner of the Brazil-Argentina game in the quarterfinals. The winner of that matchup would face the U.S., should Team USA advance that far in the tournament.
After they were an off-balance jumper away from overtime against Team USA on Monday, it'd be impossible to leave Brazil off this list.
The Brazilian team forced the U.S. squad to play a low-tempo, half-court game on Monday, which often left Team USA struggling to get into an offensive rhythm.
Team USA became increasingly careless with the ball as the game went on, and without an incredible defensive effort and a little bit of luck—as well as poor free throw shooting from Brazilian captain Marcelo Huertas—Team USA would have lost.
The Brazilian team has strength down low in Anderson Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers and in Tiago Splitter, who signed with the San Antonio Spurs for dirt cheap this summer. Varejao didn't play in the first USA-Brazil tilt, but Splitter notched 13 points and 10 rebounds despite battling foul trouble for most of the second half.
Kevin Durant single-handedly prevented the U.S. from losing to Brazil, scoring 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds on Monday, but the U.S. can't rely on Herculean efforts from Durant on a nightly basis.
Brazil has already proven that they can muck up Team USA's offensive game plan, turning them away from fast breaks and forcing them into a half-court offense.
If the U.S. doesn't figure out how to thrive in those situations—and their efforts against Iran and Tunisia suggest they may only be getting worse in the half court—a team like Brazil could easily shock the U.S. this time around.
The No. 1-ranked team in international basketball, the Argentineans have the tournament's leading scorer in Luis Scola, of the Houston Rockets, and he'll be their key moving forward.
The Argentine team lost Andres Nocioni, of the Philadelphia 76ers, to a sprained ankle right before the tournament started, and they've been relying on Scola's post skills ever since.
Argentina got off to a 4-0 start in group play before suffering a two-point loss to Serbia in the final game of the preliminary round, costing themselves the top seed in Group A.
They locked themselves into a brutally tough matchup with Brazil in the round of 16 on Tuesday. "Without a doubt, it is going to be a clasico on our continent," Brazil coach Ruben Magnano said.
If Argentina survives the "clasico," they'll move on to the quarterfinals to take on the winner of the Lithuania-China matchup.
As long as the duo of Scola, who's averaging 29 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and Carlos Delfino, who's averaging 17.4 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, can maintain their string of dominant play, the Argentinians will have the firepower to hang around.
When the host nation of a tournament reels off a 5-0 record through group play, it'd be crazy not to consider them a legitimate contender to win the whole shebang.
Turkey rolled through group play, handing Greece its first loss of the tournament, and giving the Russian team their only loss thus far.
With Ersan Ilyasova (of Milwaukee Bucks fame) averaging 16.5 points and nine rebounds per game, and Hedo Turkoglu running the offense—despite shooting only 32 percent—the Turkish team has benefited from the energy of the home crowds. They are one of the three teams still undefeated in the tournament.
By virtue of earning the top seed in Group C, the Turkish team had a date with France in the round of 16 on Sunday. The Turks are moving on and the French are heading home home after Turkey notched a dominant 95-77 victory.
Mehmet Okur tore his Achilles tendon during the Utah Jazz's playoff run last season, so Turkey has been without him in this tournament. They do have two big men in Semih Erden and Omer Asik, though. Both were second-round draft picks in the 2008 NBA draft.
The Turks won't be considered the favorite over the U.S. based on talent alone, but they do have a huge home court advantage to bolster their NBA-caliber talent. Could they win the gold? Stranger things have happened in international basketball, that's for sure.
Spain, the defending world champions, entered this tournament as one of the favorites. However, a few setbacks in the group round now gave Spain a much tougher than expected road back to the top of world basketball.
Spain lost to France in their first game of the tournament, thanks to shoddy free-throw shooting, and despite the fact that France is missing Tony Parker, Ronny Turiaf, Roddy Beaubois, and Joakim Noah this summer.
After righting their ship against New Zealand, Spain suffered a shocking loss to Lithuania, leaving them at 1-2 in group play and dangerously close to being knocked out of the tournament early.
The U.S. and Spanish squads have already crossed paths once. Spain gave Team USA its first wake-up call this summer in a pre-tournament scrimmage at Madison Square Garden on August 22. The U.S. team escaped with an 86-85 victory after Kevin Durant blocked two last-second shots from Spain.
Spain kept its zone defense packed away during the scrimmage against Team USA, but their decision to break out the zone late against Greece in their round of 16 game proved imperative to their victory on Saturday. If Team USA meets Spain in the finals, it could be another close game—though the victor could change.
With concerns about Team USA's outside shooting ability (aside from Eric Gordon, Kevin Durant, and sometimes Stephen Curry), the Spanish zone defense could end up being the U.S. team's ultimate undoing should these two teams meet in the finals.