BILBAO, Spain -- Even after a summer of mass defections and one horrendous injury suffered by Paul George, Team USA still has a squad that essentially no one outside of the host country wants to play at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.
That was the clear message on a wild final Thursday in pool play throughout Spain, when Australia barely used its best players in a loss to eliminated Angola that ensured that the Aussies would stay out of the United States' path until the semifinals at the earliest.
And that was before Team USA even took the floor at the Bilbao Exhibition Center to post a 95-71 victory over Ukraine and seal a 5-0 record in Group C that clinched a Round of 16 matchup Saturday with Mexico.
Phoenix Suns and Slovenia star Goran Dragic later blasted Australia via Twitter for benching starters Aron Baynes and Joe Ingles and playing Matthew Dellavedova and David Andersen only sparingly in the 91-83 defeat to Angola.
Basketball is a beautiful sport, there is no room for fixing the game like today Australia vs Angola!! @FIBA should do something about that!
- Goran Dragic (@Goran_Dragic) September 4, 2014
Australia's motivation, though, was clear and by no means original in FIBA competition. The Aussies obviously wanted to finish third in Group D because they could not finish first, knowing that the group's second-place finisher was in line to face Team USA in the quarterfinals.
And Slovenia, in the end, fell victim to Australia's maneuvering. When its offense collapsed in the fourth quarter Thursday night of the final game in Group D against Lithuania, Slovenia (4-1) came away with a 67-64 defeat that handed first place in the group to the Lithuanians and dropped Dragic, brother Zoran and their devastated countrymen into second.
Slovenia will thus be forced to play Team USA in Tuesday's quarterfinals in Barcelona if it gets past the Dominican Republic this weekend, while Lithuania -- like Australia -- has managed to divert itself from Team USA's path until the semifinals at the earliest despite losing influential point guard Mantas Kalnietis to injury just days before the tournament.
The Lithuanians were initially favored to win Group D before Kalnietis went down, and they have given Team USA more than its share of scares dating all the way back to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But the Americans will be expected to win their next three games in Barcelona rather comfortably -- if not quite as easily as they did in pool play -- no matter whom they face.
For all the fretting back home about the withdrawals of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook, in addition to the devastating injury that will cost George all of the next NBA season, Team USA cruised to five straight wins in the compacted six-day schedule of pool play by an average margin of victory of 33.2 points.
Yet coach Mike Krzyzewski continues to cling to his trusted tunnel-vision approach, saying after the victory over Ukraine and his dear friend Mike Fratello that he preferred to not even discuss the Mexico matchup until he had a chance to watch some film on the fourth-place finishers in Group D, who are led by NBAers Gustavo Ayon and Jorge Gutierrez. It'll be Team USA's first game against Mexico at the World Cup or Olympic level since 1967.
"We're not [like] a fan," Krzyzewski said. "We're coaches. If I was a fan, I'd watch every game. I'm a coach, so I watch my next opponent. I've done that for 40 years. We've been pretty successful doing it that way, so we're going to keep doing it that way."
Then, pointing to his head, Krzyzewski added with a smile: "Too much in here is not good. The glass can only take so much."
In truth, though, there have been few headaches thus far for Krzyzewski and his staff since Team USA landed in Spain on Aug. 24. The Americans have been plagued by slow starts in recent games, are settling for mostly quarterbacking and ball pressure from a still-rusty Derrick Rose and are still waiting for their guards as a group to consistently wreak the offensive havoc many expected. But the fact remains that their roster is still the envy of every country apart from the very impressive Spaniards.
"We wanted to be 5-0 and healthy, and I think Kyrie's going to be all right," Krzyzewski said, referring to starting point guard Kyrie Irving and the hard fall he took after slipping on a slick spot on a drive to the bucket inside the final 90 seconds against Ukraine.
"I do think it's tough for all the teams to maintain a really high level of play [playing five games in six nights]. I know people expect that from us every second, but overall our team's played well."
Team USA guard Steph Curry told ESPN after the win: "We've gotta start the games a little bit better, with a little more assertiveness, but other than that we've played well. You've gotta remember, we haven't played together that long. This is a brand new team. So every game you gotta stay focused on getting better and getting more chemistry on the court.
"We've got a great locker room, but trying to translate that to success on the court and knowing where each other's gonna be and how we're gonna win ... we'll get more comfortable as the games go on."
The fact that Spain already looks so comfortable, as evidenced by convincing statement wins over Brazil and France in Group A, is an undeniable concern for the perennial title favorites from the States. But Team USA will quietly take some comfort from the fact that Spain still faces a tougher road than Krzyzewski's squad does en route to the Sept. 14 championship showdown in Madrid that's been widely anticipated for months.
The Americans, after playing Mexico and then the Slovenia-Dominican Republic winner, is on course to face one of these four nations in the semis in Barcelona: Lithuania, Turkey, Australia or New Zealand.
Spain has a comfortable date with Senegal looming in the Round of 16 in Madrid, but then will have to see off the Croatia-France winner in the quarterfinals before facing one of these four perennial powers in the semis: Brazil, Greece, Argentina or Serbia.
"Spain is a very, very good team," Ukraine coach Fratello said. "They're big [with Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka] and they've played together for so long. They do things that you have to do. To [beat] the U.S., you have to be skilled, otherwise you have too many turnovers from not being able to pass and catch.
"They have size to go on the glass and I'm sure in their minds, playing in their home country, they feel they have a very, very good chance. But don't count the U.S. out, because they have resiliency. They have toughness about them. They have a great coaching staff. And when they get to a point where they're playing teams that they know are a major challenge, they're going to raise their game a little bit and get after it."