USA Basketball manage expectations, have fun
By Ann Killion, special to Pac-12.com
LONDON - The U.S. men's basketball team is exactly where everyone expected it to be: in the gold-medal game against Spain.
"We're excited to compete on Sunday," Kevin Love said.
Love is one of four Pac-12 players on the team - no other conference is as well represented on the greatest basketball team in the world. And while the rock stars on the team are drawing most of the attention, Love and Russell Westbrook of UCLA, Arizona's Andre Iguodala and Arizona State's James Harden are part of the reason this team has a new and different vibe.
There's young blood on the U.S. team, which - while it continues to dominate - makes the group fresher and a little less entitled. They seem to be having fun together and responding well to coach Mike Krzyzewski.
"On the court we mesh well," Love said. "It's definitely an honor to be part of this team, to play for Coach K, to be a part of his team. I've felt comfortable the whole time. I just needed an opportunity. Coach K told me he would give me one, and eventually I got it."
Love has been a major contributor in this tournament and is expected to play significant minutes against Spain on Sunday. His former UCLA teammate, Westbrook, might not be as lucky, however. He left Friday's semifinal against Argentina with a sprained ankle and his status is unclear.
The experience has been exciting for the Pac-12 players. They've been mingling with other U.S. athletes, showing up at events, posting pictures on Twitter.
"Coming off the NBA finals and right on to the Olympic team, this is one of the best times in my life right now," Harden said. "I'm just trying to enjoy it. Taking it all in and having fun and embracing it."
USA Basketball always comes into the Olympics as a heavy favorite. And, in the NBA era, the team has won the gold medal every year except for 2004, when they finished with the bronze medal.
The young players seem to be handling the pressure that comes with playing for what some people still refer to as the "Dream Team."
"We're still humble," Love said. "You have to bring your ego and check it at the door playing for your country and playing with guys who are all superstars."
Harden and Westbrook are among the players who played all the way through the last day of the NBA Finals. They were the last ones to change out of their NBA uniforms and slip on the red-white-and-blue. They have no complaints about being tired.
"Not everybody gets to represent their country," Harden said. "It's a great honor."
And though at times the Olympic games seem to just be an extension of the NBA - on Friday night the postgame interviews were dominated by talk of the Dwight Howard trade, which sent Iguodala to Denver - it's a very different experience.
"Oh yeah, it's a lot different playing for the USA across your chest," Love said. " For your flag. It's a whole different perspective on the game of basketball."
But the result is what was expected: the U.S. team is playing for gold.