Spain earned an Olympic medal in men's basketball for the first time in 24 years at the Beijing Games, but it has its work cut out for it to return to the podium in London.
Spain won't have point guard Ricky Rubio for this tournament, and it will have a lopsided loss to the United States fresh in its mind Sunday as it opens Group B play against China.
The last Spanish medal prior to Beijing came in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but the team was on the cusp of winning gold in 2008. The U.S. ultimately held off Spain in the championship game 118-107 despite the Spaniards pulling as close as two in the fourth quarter, but the silver medalists had plenty of reason to be optimistic about their international future.
Any thought of a rematch in the 2010 FIBA world championships was scrubbed when Spain fell to Serbia in the quarterfinal, and Spain's chances of putting that disappointment behind it in London took a big hit March 9 in Minneapolis. That's where Rubio suffered a torn ACL in a game with national teammate Pau Gasol's Los Angeles Lakers, an injury that in the eyes of many turned Spain from a viable gold-medal challenger to just another in a cluster of four or five hopefuls looking to dethrone the U.S.
The club didn't do anything to dispel that view in Tuesday's exhibition in Barcelona. Spain led by nine late in the first quarter, but the U.S. closed the half on a 35-18 run and never looked back in a 100-78 victory.
"Well, it was definitely a game that we would have loved to play better as a team," said Gasol, who had a team-high 19 points. "We made too many mistakes, which they capitalized and they played their game."
Though Rubio's absence is a crucial blow to the backcourt, Pau Gasol and brother Marc give Spain a tremendous duo up front. They'll have even more help with the addition of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, who was granted Spanish citizenship in July 2011 after spending time there as a teenager.
Ibaka was named to the NBA's all-defensive team last season after averaging 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and a league-high 3.7 blocks.
Coach Sergio Scariolo thinks the addition of Ibaka - along with the Gasols and mainstays Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez - make Spain a threat for gold even without Rubio.
"This team is based on an idea, a team structure that took time to find its feet after a shaky start," said Scariolo, who has coached the national team since 2009. "When I arrived there were some incompatible players here, but since then we have constructed an identity that has worked as the base for all players coming in."
For as far as Spain made it in Beijing four years ago, it nearly suffered a disastrous loss in the group stage. The Spaniards trailed by 14 after three quarters to China in their second game of the tournament before rallying to win 85-75 in overtime.
Pau Gasol had 29 points and Fernandez scored 21.
China wound up in the quarterfinals - it's never advanced farther in seven Olympic appearances - before falling to Lithuania by 26.
That Chinese team was led by Yao Ming, but it'll no longer have the services of the former Houston Rockets star after his retirement last July.
That means the team will now look to current free agent and former Dallas Maverick Yi Jianlian to lead the way. Though Yi has averaged just 7.9 points over five NBA seasons after being picked sixth overall in 2007, he seems to be a far more confident player for China.
"He has to score and rebound, but most importantly he has to get other people open looks because of his presence," coach Bob Donewald said.
"He is at the top of his game right now and very hungry to play."