What a difference nine days makes.
Sure, the U.S. men's hoops team tipped off the Olympic tournament on Aug. 10 as the favorite on paper. But nobody who follows the international scene would have been floored if the latest collection of American superstars flopped in Beijing. Not after Indianapolis in 2002. Not after Athens in 2004. Not after Japan in 2006.
Instead, Team USA has overachieved for a change. And on the eve of the single-elimination knockout round -- having dispensed of its five group stage opponents by an average margin of 32.2 points -- it's already being crowned.
Germany coach Dirk Baurermann called the U.S. team "unbeatable" on Monday, following his team's 106-57 dismantling at the hands of the Americans. Meanwhile, bar-room debates Stateside have turned from whether Team USA can bring home the gold medal to whether it could have given the original Dream Team a challenge.
Assistant coach Jim Boeheim did his best to temper the resurgent expectations Monday on the Dan Patrick Show, calling the Redeem Team's overwhelming margin of victory "deceptive" since European teams tend to shut down during the preliminary round when they fall behind by 20 points. He's right to dial down the hype. As invincible as the U.S. has looked, there are seven other teams in this tournament -- and the medal round's single-elimination format leaves the most powerful Goliath at the mercy of freak luck (if David's unconscious from downtown).
So with the knockout stage getting underway early Wednesday morning at Wukesong Indoor Stadium, here's a game-by-game look at the quarterfinal quadrupleheader:
Croatia (3-2) vs. Spain (4-1), 2:30 a.m. ET
The Croats have made the most of their first Olympic trip in 12 years, emerging as dark horses to bring home a medal with victories over Australia and Russia in their first two games. Combo guard Zoran Planinic, who spent three years with the Nets, has averaged 11.8 points on 56.7 percent shooting from the floor (including 9-for-18 from beyond the arc). Roko Ukic, a July signing by the Raptors, has also excelled at the point. But Jasmin Repesa's squad got a bum draw with the Spanish, the reigning world champions with seven former or current NBA players on their roster. Spain rebounded nicely from Saturday's humbling blowout against the U.S. with a 98-50 rout of Angola. Look for Aíto García Reneses' squad to ride the momentum from Monday into the semifinals and beyond.
Prediction: Spain 72, Croatia 62
China (2-3) vs. Lithuania (4-1), 4:45 a.m. ET
The hosts dug out of an 0-2 hole to salvage a place in the medal round thanks to victories over Angola and Germany. But while Yao Ming has turned in a typically thorough performance -- averaging 19.0 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks -- China's three losses to elite-level opponents came by double digits. Meanwhile, Lithuania brought a 4-0 record into its preliminary round finale before suffering a shocking 31-point blowout to Australia. It still won Group A on a tie-breaker -- with Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza averaging 13.8 points and 5.8 boards -- but it's hardly the kind of momentum Ramunas Butautas' team wanted to carry into the medal round. Expect China to play on emotion out of the gate and push its opponent early before losing reach of Lithuania after the break.
Prediction: Lithuania 84, China 69
Australia (3-2) vs. United States (5-0), 8 a.m. ET
The Australian team presents a curious quarterfinal matchup for the United States. The Boomers have the size and grit -- if not the skill -- to match the Americans. But Brian Goorjian's squad enters the game with confidence after giving the U.S. team a stiff challenge on Aug. 5 in the final pre-Olympic exhibition for both teams. Playing without centerpiece Andrew Bogut, the Aussies trailed by just four points midway through the third quarter before the U.S. used a 13-2 spurt to pull away for an eventual 87-76 victory. Sure, the U.S. enters the knockout round in stratospheric form, with a trail of demoralized opponents in its wake. But Australia throttled the previously undefeated Lithuanians by 31 points on Monday, knocking down 16-of-25 shots from beyond the arc (in just 40 minutes) while forcing 25 turnovers. If Australia makes 16 treys on Wednesday, the Americans will assuredly face their first gut-check situation of the entire tournament. But whether the Boomers can even get those kind of looks against Team USA's suffocating perimeter defense is the real question.
Prediction: United States 98, Australia 75
Greece (3-2) vs. Argentina (4-1), 10:15 a.m. ET
The marquee matchup of the quarterfinals pits the reigning Olympic champions against the runner-up of the most recent FIBA World Championship. Manu Ginobili is averaging a tournament-high 19.6 points after spiriting the Albiceleste to a gold medal at the Athens Games, where the rough-and-tumble shooting guard became the first player in history to win an Olympic gold medal, an NBA championship and a Euroleague title. Fellow NBA veterans Luis Scola (19.2) and Andres Nocioni (13.0) and former NBA guard Carlos Delfino (10.6) have also helped shoulder the scoring load, with Scola's tournament-best 37-point outburst helping sink Russia on Monday. When it comes to players with NBA ties, the Greeks (zero) fall far short of the Argentines (five). But 10 of their 12 players play for either Olympiacos or Panathinaikos -- essentially the Lakers and Celtics of the Greek League -- infusing this side with a chemistry and communication often absent from opposing national teams. Look for these closely matched sides to provide the most dramatic clash of the quarterfinals.
Prediction: Argentina 77, Greece 74
What are your predictions for Wednesday's quarterfinals? Let us know in the comments below.