Preview: USA squares off against Serbia for gold at FIBA World Cup
USA Basketball will aim to complete an undefeated run through the FIBA World Cup when it faces Serbia in the gold medal game on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.
How they got here
USA (8-0) has led an absolutely charmed existence so far in Spain. Placed in a fairly weak Group B, the Americans blitzed through the competition in four out of their five first-round games and dismissed a nice effort from Turkey before things truly got interesting. In the knockout stage, USA manhandled Mexico and Slovenia before dominating Lithuania 98-68 in the semifinals. All told, none of USA's eight opponents has succeeded in keeping the final margin within 20 points.
This hasn't only been a case of the USA taking care of its own business. In fact, coach Mike Krzyzewski and company have been getting quite a bit of help from external sources. The greatest assist, of course, came from France, who surprisingly eliminated Spain in the quarterfinals. On paper, the host nation looked poised to give USA match-up problems; instead, the much-anticipated showdown between the world's top-two teams was abruptly canceled when the Spanish failed to hold up their end of the bargain. What's more, USA will have only had to face two top-10 teams in FIBA's rankings -- No. 4 Lithuania and No. 7 Turkey -- in this tournament. The Americans managed to avoid No. 3 Argentina (eliminated in the round-of-16), No. 5 Greece (eliminated in the round-of-16), No. 6 Russia (not in the tournament), No. 8 France (eliminated in the semifinals) and No. 10 Brazil (eliminated in the quarterfinals). No wonder Team USA has scored a tournament-best 101.5 points per game (20.1 points per game more than Serbia) and accumulated an average margin of victory of 32.5 points.
Serbia (5-3), on the other hand, has had to fight really hard for its right to play for gold. Slotted in Group A, the so-called "Group of Death," Serbia barely squeaked into the second round with a 2-3 record as it fell to Spain, Brazil and France in the group stage. Everything changed in the knockout round, as it managed to upset Greece, demolish Brazil in a rematch, and then hold off France 90-85 in the semifinals. The gold medal game against USA will mark the seventh time that Serbia, ranked No. 11 in the world, will have played a team ranked in FIBA's top-10 in a span of just 15 days! As if that slate wasn't exhausting enough, the Serbians played their semifinals on Friday while the Americans played on Thursday, putting them at a 24-hour rest disadvantage following a taxing, down-to-the-wire game against the French.
Bigger picture, USA arrives in the gold medal game riding a 62-game winning streak that includes gold at the 2008 Olympics, 2010 World Championships and 2012 Olympics. Serbia has a rich basketball history dating back to its days as part of Yugoslavia. By advancing to the World Cup final and guaranteeing itself at least a silver medal, Serbia eclipsed its previous top achievement in recent years, a silver medal at the 2009 EuroBasket.
Bovada.LV, an oddsmaking service, lists USA as a 21-point favorite. For what it's worth, USA entered the tournament as the top favorite with 1/2 odds at taking gold. Serbia ranked eighth with 40/1 odds.
The case for the USA
Considering how dominant the Americans have looked throughout the tournament, tripping up in an easier-than-expected final would qualify as a total, historic disaster. On paper, USA enjoys a lopsided talent advantage of epic proportions. Krzyzewski has used a starting lineup that includes four All-Stars (Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Anthony Davis) while Serbian coach Sasha Djordjevic has just one player on his roster (Miroslav Raduljica) who was even in the NBA last year. To make matters worse, Raduljica couldn't even get off the bench for the 15-win Bucks last season, and he was waived by the Clippers following an offseason trade in which he served as filler.
Following the unexpected losses of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George, Krzyzewski has re-crafted his squad into a team that spreads the wealth on offense, plays oppressive defense and overwhelms opponents once it hits the open court. Six different players have averaged double figures for USA, with the likes of Davis (13 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks), Faried (12.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 67.6 FG%), Harden (13.1 points, 3.4 assists, 2.4 steals) and Klay Thompson (12.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 41.7 3P%) all getting their turns to look like standouts in the knockout round.
The list of match-up problems that USA poses for Serbia is a long one. How will the Serbians handle USA's quickness and savvy on the perimeter? How will Serbia contend with the energetic Faried? Who on Serbia can reasonably be expected to track Davis all over the court? On the flip side, USA has to feel confident that it has the versatility and athleticism to force Serbia's offense to work harder to generate good looks than it has in this tournament. Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have the requisite profiles to counter Raduljica and Serbia's other bigs, while Krzyzewski has waves of guards to throw at Milos Teodosic, Serbia's leading scorer in the tournament.
To date, USA's best attribute just might be its focus. Krzyzewski has done well to motivate his team on a game-by-game basis; even when sloppy or slow starts have kept games close at halftime, his charges have regularly responded with authoritative third-quarter runs. Any team -- even the most talented -- can shoot itself in the foot, but there haven't been any obvious warning signs to date.
The case for Serbia
Nothing is impossible, but a Serbian upset here would be one for the ages. Djordjevic's pre-game pitch to his squad should be something like this: "We have passed more tests than they have, we have nothing to lose and they have everything to lose, the pressure will fall entirely upon them if the game remains close in the fourth quarter, and France proved with its win over Spain that anything is possible."
Envisioning an upset requires stitching together a perfect storm. First, key American players -- Davis, Harden, Curry, etc. -- must fall victim to foul trouble. FIBA officiating is notoriously inconsistent, and a number of USA players have drawn two or three quick fouls in the tournament. A reduction in available starter talent would certainly help open the door for Serbia.
Past that, Serbia must hope that USA's shooters aren't clicking on all cylinders. The Serbians have out-shot the Americans from outside on the tournament -- 39.9 percent to 38.3 percent -- and a substantial three-point differential is seemingly a must for Serbia's upset bid.
Help from the officials and hot outside shooting still won't be enough to overcome USA's many advantages. To defeat sheer star power, Serbia will need some of its own. That means the dynamic Teodosic, who is averaging 14 points and 4.1 assists in the tournament, must play like a true superstar, much like he did while scoring 24 points (on 9-for-12 shooting) and dishing three assists against France. The 6-foot-5, 27-year-old guard is an excellent scorer and play-maker for CSKA Moscow in Russia, and he will need to overcome the defensive efforts of Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and anyone else that Krzyzewski throws at him. Both Raduljica (13.5 points and 4.8 rebounds) and 6-foot-6 guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (11.6 points, 2.8 assists) must have big-impact performances too.
All signs -- team statistics, overall talent, relative roster depth, schedule considerations, individual match-ups, prognosticating odds -- point to a romp for USA. Let's call it: USA 102, Serbia 78.
A victory for a make-shift roster would further secure USA's standing as the sport's singular superpower. A blowout victory would lead to real questions about whether anyone will be able to mount a legitimate challenge to the Americans at the 2016 Olympics. If USA's B-team succeeds in completing a breezy run through the World Cup, what happens when LeBron James, Durant, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard and other A-listers are back in the mix for Rio de Janeiro?