Saturday's preliminary group meeting between the United States and Spain means nothing and means everything.
The Americans and the Spanish are the lone teams in Group B to have already clinched quarterfinal berths, entering Saturday's contest (10:15 a.m. ET, NBC) with identical 3-0 records. So the result itself means practically nothing. When the final buzzer sounds, both sides will march forward with gold medal hopes intact.
But from a perception standpoint, is there a bigger must-see game during the group stage? America has the world's best players from the world's best domestic league. But Spain earned the title of world's best team at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, and came within a basket of adding a European Championship to its silver case last September.
Spain and the United States have entered the late 2000s as the world's preeminent basketball powers, following the former's steady breaking away from the European pack and the latter's rise from the ashes of its own institutional implosion. And since these countries appear headed for a collision course for the Aug. 24 gold medal game, the modest stakes of Saturday's meeting would belie its true significance.
Here are three of the meatiest plotlines going into the "meaningless" contest:
Stern faces: The contest will set a record for most players with NBA ties on the same court during an Olympic game. More than half of the players on the Spanish roster have benefited from, or are about to begin, tours in the world's premier hoops league. Pau Gasol (Los Angeles Lakers), Rudy Fernández (Portland Trail Blazers), José Calderón (Toronto Raptors) and Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies) will report to their NBA squads after fulfilling their national duties in Beijing. Meanwhile, Jorge Garbajosa (Toronto Raptors), Juan Carlos Navarro (Memphis Grizzlies) and Raül López (Utah Jazz) have opted to return to Spain following NBA stints. On one hand, the sight of 10 former or current NBA players on the court Saturday will represent a watershed moment in this sport's globalization. On the other, it's proof positive Spain has the requisite depth to give the stacked U.S. team a proper challenge.
Kid dynamite: In addition to Spain's better-known exports, NBA scouts are frothing at the mouth over Ricky Rubio, the 17-year-old child prodigy many observers have deemed the best European guard prospect since Drazen Petrovic. Rubio has averaged 5.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just 15.7 minutes as Calderón's understudy at point guard. But the youngster enjoyed his best outing of the tournament in Tuesday's victory over Germany, chipping in seven points on 3-for-5 shooting to go with five rebounds, three assists and two steals. "He plays few minutes but whenever he does, he changes the game completely," five-time Olympian and Brazilian hoops legend Oscar Schmidt said in an interview with FIBA.com. "Ricky changed the game against China and he changed the game against Germany. He is special."
Tale of the tempo: Greece upset the United States in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship by slowing the tempo to a relative crawl and employing the pick-and-roll to use Team USA's defensive pressure against it. By limiting the game to 75 possessions, the Greeks forced the United States to play defense for extended stretches and engineered the 101-95 upset despite allowing the Americans to shoot 50 percent from the floor. In Tuesday's rematch, Team USA disrupted Greece's methodical approach and forced a more frenetic pace through constant defensive pressure. This time, the teams exchanged 81 possessions -- a notably faster pace -- and the Americans coasted to a 23-point victory. But here's the rub: Spain also likes to get out and run. Will the Spanish play outside their preferred style to try to remove the Americans from their comfort zone? Or will Spain coach Aito Garcia Reneses fight fire with fire and try to beat the Americans at their own approach?
Spain has matched America's undefeated mark but revealed its vulnerability along the way, needing overtime on Tuesday to dispense of China. Meanwhile, Team USA has blown the doors off the competition in Beijing, winning its three games by an average margin of 25 points. It's approached this tournament with a focus and concentration unparalleled by any recent U.S. national teams -- and the results have matched the effort. "Of course, you can have a bad day and one day you lose, and if that day is the quarterfinals or semifinals, you lose the championship," Schmidt said. "But we can already see that [Team USA] is ready to win. If you just look at them during the national anthem, you see that they are into it."
Will Team USA roll to another runaway victory against the Spanish? Or have the Americans finally met their match after feasting on inferior competition so far? Does the fact that the U.S. team has yet to play a hard-fought game concern you? Weigh in with your thoughts below.