James Harden, centre, and Kyrie Irving, right, will try and make up for the absence of some illustrious compatriots in the sport at the World Cup in Spain. Luis Tejido / EPA
James Harden, centre, and Kyrie Irving, right, will try and make up for the absence of some illustrious compatriots in the sport at the World Cup in Spain. Luis Tejido / EPA

Under-strength United States still favourites over hosts Spain



A weakened United States should still be strong enough to reach the final of the 2014 World Cup of basketball, which begins in Spain today.

The defending champions, together with the hosts, will be strong favourites to reach the final of the marathon 24-nation event, while European champions France, a rejuvenated Croatia plus Brazil, Lithuania and Greece are likely to feature among the dark horses at the tournament, which ends on September 14

Although the US will be missing household NBA names such as Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, they should still stroll into the final from their half of the draw.

The Americans completed their build-up with Tuesday’s 101-71 rout of Slovenia, after emphatic wins against Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

A balanced US looks solid in all departments, with Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins dominating the boards, while Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose provide long-range firepower.

Coached by Mike Krzyzewski, who has guided Duke University to four NCAA titles since 1980 and the national team to 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medals, the US are likely to take nothing for granted. “The team is prepared for the next game, but not for the medal round,” Krzyzewski said.

“We have to get a lot better before the medal round. Playing Spain is a long way away, so I’m just concentrating on the US and trying to get better.”

Golden State Warriors point guard Curry added: “We are very versatile with what we can throw on the floor. It’s pretty hard to score on us and defend on the other end, but we’ve still got some gelling to do.”

The US start their campaign today in Bilbao against Finland in a preliminary pool that also features New Zealand, Turkey, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine.

Having lost narrowly to the Americans in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, a resourceful Spanish pack are looking to defy the odds and triumph on home soil. Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol and brother Marc, plying his trade for the Memphis Grizzlies, constitute a strong presence in the paint alongside Oklahoma Thunder’s Serge Ibaka and veteran Felipe Reyes.

The back court will be led by Real Madrid’s trio of Rudy Fernandez, Sergio Rodriguez and Sergio Llull, with New York Knicks playmaker Jose Calderon, Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio and Barcelona stalwart Juan Carlos Navarro providing the support.

The Spaniards will first have to negotiate a tricky preliminary pool that features France, Brazil, Serbia, Egypt and Iran.

Spain completed their build-up with an 85-63 win over Argentina, their eighth in as many warm-up games, and Navarro is confident the hosts will successfully negotiate a challenging path to the final in Madrid.

“There will be difficult moments, but I am sure we will be able to overcome them, together with our fans,” Navarro told the country’s basketball federation website.

“The warm-up games suggest we’ve hit top form at the right time, but we can’t afford to leave anything in the tank against any of our rivals.

“We know that the Americans are missing some important players, but they are still a great team and the favourites to win the title. If that game comes, we will be ready because we are a good team, too.”

The top four teams from each of the four preliminary pools advance to the last 16, when the knockout stage starts. Spain and the US cannot meet before the final.

* Reuters

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