ATHENS - The recruiting season is over. So is the conference race. What remains, starting today, is the equivalent of the single-elimination NCAA tournament.
The U.S. men's basketball team may be composed of pros, but the road its players hope will lead to gold has been far more reminiscent of college days.
There was the recruitment of superstars. Many - among them Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Kevin Garnett - said no thanks, citing injuries, fatigue, safety concerns and a pending sexual assault trial.
There was the preliminary round, which showed the U.S. men capable of again becoming a dream team but equally capable of nightmarish embarrassment. They finished 3-2, getting upset by Puerto Rico, losing a late lead and the game to Lithuania, struggling to beat Australia and Greece before romping over Angola.
"We are in the elite eight," said U.S. coach Larry Brown.
But are they elite enough to survive? The United States will open play in the quarterfinals today against unbeaten Spain (5-0). That means trying to find a way to neutralize forward Pau Gasol, who when he is not leading his countrymen is doing the same for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Should the U.S. team win, it will play tomorrow against Argentina or Greece. A second victory would put the Americans in the gold-medal game Saturday, where it could meet favored Lithuania.
But first things first."[Spain] is the best team I've seen thus far," Brown said. "Gasol is as good a player as there is in the tournament. They are a veteran team. They are a team that beat the United States at home in Indianapolis at the 2002 world championships."
Gasol leads Spain in scoring at 18.2 points and rebounds with 7.6, and is shooting 56 percent.
The game may well come down to a matchup between Gasol and U.S. center Tim Duncan. Duncan is probably the best player in the Olympic tournament, but Gasol has already disposed of one NBA giant in Athens. He led Spain to an 83-58 victory over China, so distressing Chinese center Yao Ming that Yao publicly criticized his teammates.
Spain will throw up yet another zone defense against the United States.
Even Brown, who favors man-to-man defense, is considering joining the crowd.
"We might have to play some zone," he said, "even though it's not something I'm real comfortable with."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.