By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - A much-weakened United States should still be strong enough at least to reach the final of the 2014 basketball World Cup, which begins in Spain on Saturday.
The holders, together with the hosts, will be strong favorites 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 runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 14.
Although the U.S. will be missing virtually the entire top echelon of household NBA names - including 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, one of the teams they could meet en route to the final, after emphatic wins against Brazil, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
A balanced United States outfit looks rock-solid in all departments, with Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins dominating the boards, while Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and fit-again Derrick Rose provide long-range firepower.
Coached by the iconic Mike Krzyzewski, who has guided his Duke University to four NCAA titles since 1980 and the national team to 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medals as well as the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. are likely to take nothing for granted.
"The team is prepared for the next game but not for the medal round," Krzyzewski told reporters after seeing his team ease past Slovenia.
"We have to get a lot better before the medal round. Playing Spain is a long way away, so I am just concentrating on the U.S. 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 [have] still got some gelling to do."
The United States start their campaign on Saturday in Bilbao against Finland in a preliminary pool also featuring New Zealand, Turkey, the Dominican Republic and Ukraine.
Having lost narrowly to the Americans in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, a deep and resourceful Spanish pack will head into battle looking to defy the odds and triumph on home soil.
Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol and his 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 including France, Brazil, an unpredictable Serbia, coached by former trophy-laden playmaker Aleksandar Djordjevic, 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 on the back of passionate home support.
"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 (www.seleccionbaloncesto.es).
"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 favorites 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 will advance to the last 16, when the knockout stage of the competition starts. Spain and the U.S. cannot meet before the final.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Neville Dalton)