- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BILBAO, Spain -- The 12 players representing the United States at the FIBA World Cup that starts this weekend comprise the youngest team fielded by USA Basketball since NBA players were ushered into the international game in 1992.
When it opens Group C play here Saturday night against Finland at the Bizkaia Arena, Team USA will sport an average age of just above 24 years old.
But Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and USAB chairman Jerry Colangelo are nonetheless convinced that the 2014 squad begins the tournament in better shape than the 2010 group that ultimately won that FIBA World Championship in Turkey without a single member from the gold-medal-winning 2008 Olympic team.
"By far," Colangelo told ESPN.com. "Because we have a couple of Olympic gold medalists on this roster in Anthony Davis and James Harden. We have three players from that team in 2010 in Steph Curry, Derrick Rose and Rudy Gay. And they're not 21 this time. They're 23 or 24. A little bit older and more mature.
"We like our team. We really do."
Yet Colangelo has acknowledged on multiple occasions this summer that he would ultimately regard a fourth successive championship in a major tournament for the United States to be the "sweetest" success enjoyed by the program since he and Krzyzewski teamed up to resuscitate USA Basketball in the wake of a humbling bronze-medal finish at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
That's because of the rash of prominent players' withdrawals that USAB has weathered this summer. Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook all removed themselves from the roster before the squad convened for its first training camp in Las Vegas in late July. Kevin Durant then followed suit earlier this month after the horrific compound leg fracture suffered by Paul George in an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 1.
But this team, as Colangelo mentioned, brings a modicum of international experience to the competition even after all those losses. In 2010, Team USA was forced to field a new squad that eventually defeated host Turkey in the final after a team led by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony narrowly defeated Spain in the 2008 gold-medal game in Beijing.
"We just have to develop quickly, like we always do, to beat the experience [Team USA's top rivals] have playing together," Krzyzewski says.
The Americans will be further boosted by the fact that their path to the Sept. 14 championship game and a likely rematch with host Spain couldn't be more favorable. Of the 11 teams in Group C and D that Team USA could potentially face in its first eight of nine games on Spanish soil, none is considered a powerhouse. And the biggest threat in either group -- Lithuania -- crucially lost starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis to a serious shoulder injury this week, with no established backup behind him.
The Americans, as a result, are widely expected to cruise into the final despite their lack of continuity and the absence of a clearly defined go-to guy or two for crunch time of a big game.
Spain, by contrast, finds itself in an unforgiving Group A with traditional powers Brazil, France and Serbia. Even though France is missing NBA All-Stars Tony Parker and Joakim Noah after both elected to take a summer off from national team duty following France's historic run to the EuroBasket title last summer, Group A is unquestionably regarded as the closest thing to a "group of death" in this tournament, putting Spain at risk for a loss before the single-elimination round begins Sept. 6.
In anticipation of seeing Spain's mammoth front line in the Sept. 14 title game, Team USA brought more big men on the trip than it has for years. Having relied largely on the supreme quickness and athleticism of its wing players and guards in the past few major competitions, Krzyzewski has turned to the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Mason Plumlee and Andre Drummond to support starters Davis and Kenneth Faried in countering the vaunted Spanish trio of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
"We still have a goal and that's to win gold, and we can't [say], 'Oh, Kevin [Durant] dropped out, Paul [George] got hurt, so this is going to be tough for us,'" said Davis, who emerged as the team's most productive player at both ends in the Yanks' four exhibition wins after serving as the 12th man on the Olympic team in London.
"We hear everybody saying that. We're trying to prove that wrong."
The Americans' defense is predictably ahead of its offensive execution at this point, thanks largely to Davis' ability to cover so much ground, change so many shots and control the backboards with Faried. Their margin of error against the hungry-for-revenge Spaniards will also undoubtedly be slimmer if the teams indeed live up to billing to advance to the championship game, with Spain possessing home-court advantage and Team USA weakened by all the pullouts.
But Team USA brings a 54-game winning streak dating to 2006, including exhibitions, into its Group C opener against the Finns. So the Americans, with six former NBA All-Stars on the roster, continue to inspire a fear factor unmatched by any other nation in the 24-team field (expanded from 16).
"We have high expectations of playing well against Finland right out of the gate," Curry said. "But [the key is] not to get discouraged if it's not perfect. ... You just gotta stick with the program [during rough stretches] because eventually, with how deep we are, we feel like we'll be able to take control of every game."
USA Basketball will field its youngest team since 1992 when it takes the court for the FIBA World Cup this weekend.