LONDON (AP) — France coach Vincent Collet says playing the United States at the start of the men’s Olympic tournament feels like a “child facing a monster.”
Collet might be too modest when he describes his team as the child.
France is not without muscle itself and has a smart playmaker in Tony Parker, the San Antonio guard.
France’s roster includes Ronny Turiaf, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Kevin Seraphin and Nando de Colo — all currently on NBA rosters.
The Americans feature LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to mention just two of their NBA superstars, and are heavily favored to defend the gold medal in the 12-team tournament.
But France could be just the first of many challenges today on the road to the expected gold medal.
Parker, who nearly missed the London Games because of a serious eye injury, has the ability to break down defenses and could pose an early problem for the Americans.
“I just started training like 10 days ago so I’m not 100 percent,” Parker said two days ago. “I’m not even close to being in shape. We had a terrible preparation but we’re going to try and do the best we can.”
Collet, in an interview posted by the French basketball federation, said Batum was also not fully fit, but said he expected both men to get stronger as the tournament progresses.
“We know how the Americans play and we know our priorities: slow down their quick game and control the boards. We are the kid facing the monster. And when you are a monster, you impose your game on your rivals,” Collet said.
The Americans say they are ready for anything they might come up against.
“It’s a big test for us,” United States forward Carmelo Anthony said, lacing up his sneakers Saturday before practice at East London University. “We’re going up against guys that we normally play on a night-to-night basis, and those countries have put them all together just like we have. And at the end of the day their main goal is to beat the United States.
“There’s going to be some good battles.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said: “We’re ready.”
France will only be the first. Spain, Argentina and Brazil are all talented enough to not only compete with the USA but potentially upset the world’s No. 1 team.
That wasn’t the case four years ago, when the Americans steamrolled through the field, winning by at least 20 points in each of its first seven games before beating Spain 118-107 in the final. Krzyzewski, who guided the 2008 team to gold, believes a potential road to another title could have some dangerous bumps.
“The overall 12 teams are more talented, more seasoned,” he said. “Spain is just in the prime of their — 28, 29 (years of age). Brazil is in that wheelhouse. I think Russia’s really, really good. Obviously Argentina, everyone says they’re older but their heart and talent has not gotten older, it’s just gotten better.
“There’s just more teams that feel that they have a chance to win the gold medal — and medal — than they did in ‘08.”
Count the French among them. They finished second to Spain at last year’s European Championships, and maintain they won’t be intimidated by team USA’s collection of All-Stars, MVPs and household names.
Parker says France isn’t frightened despite being 0-4 against the Americans in Olympic competition.
“For us there is no fear factor because we play against them all the time,” said Parker, who will wear goggles to protect his surgically repaired left eye. “We know they are really, really good. But it’s not going to be like the other teams where they don’t see them and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m playing against Kobe and LeBron.’”
Bryant likened France’s offense to the one Parker runs with the Spurs. Everything starts with the ball in Parker’s hands, so the United States team’s challenge will be to make him give it up.
“Slow him down and surround him,” Bryant said. “Keep bodies in front of him at all times.”
This USA team has five holdovers from the ‘08 squad, five from the 2010 world championship team and two newcomers.
“Everybody expects us to win gold,” James said. “And that’s what we’re here for. Nothing else.”
In the first match today, Nigeria, the surprise team of the qualifying round, faces Tunisia, before the Americans play France.
Also today, it’s Argentina vs. Lithuania, Brazil vs. Australia, Spain vs. China and Russia vs. Britain.