By Iain Rogers and Elena Gyldenkerne
MADRID (Reuters) - The United States will need to have an off day and prospective vanquishers will have to play out of their skins if they are to be denied another Olympic basketball gold, Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said on Saturday.
Since the sport was first included at the 1936 Berlin Games, the U.S. have won 13 of the 16 competitions entered and, with a squad stuffed with NBA All-Stars, are overwhelming favorites to retain the title won in Beijing four years ago after beating the Spanish.
Scariolo's Spain, with plenty of top NBA players of their own, including the Gasol brothers Marc and Pau, Jose Calderon and Serge Ibaka, are widely tipped to take silver again in London, but the Italian is not entirely ruling out an upset.
"Of course everybody believes the United States will win the gold medal," he told Reuters at Spain's training center in central Madrid.
"You have to respect that they are the favorites and, besides our families and our friends, nobody believes they can lose," added the 51-year-old with a smile.
"But at the same time there are many teams that are good at these Olympic Games: Spain of course, Argentina, Brazil, France.
"So, the goal is to be in the fight for the medals and it's hard to say that one team is absolutely unbeatable."
Scariolo, who also coaches Milan-based club side EA7 Emporio Armani, took over as Spain coach in 2009, leading them to back-to-back Eurobasket triumphs.
He and his players have been training in Madrid the past week and have friendlies against Britain, France, Tunisia, Australia and Argentina before they test their progress in their last warm-up match ahead of the Games against the U.S. in Barcelona on July 24.
"Probably they are way better than anyone else but we'll see," Scariolo said of the latest U.S. Dream Team.
"They are probably the only country that could put three different teams on the court and have a chance of winning the three medals.
"Everyone has to try to get to the game against the U.S. at their top level.
"If they will be at their top level it's going to be extremely, extremely difficult to beat them.
"If you are not at your top level for sure you are not going to have any chance."
Scariolo has a couple of injury concerns heading into the Games, with influential captain Juan Carlos Navarro of Barcelona and former Denver Nuggets swingman Rudy Fernandez recovering from late-season problems.
He will also have to do without Minnesota Timberwolves promising point guard Ricky Rubio, who is on the way back from knee surgery and will be replaced in the starting team by Calderon of the Toronto Raptors.
"Of course it's a big deal," Scariolo said.
"We never want to have one of our guys out because of injury and Ricky had a main role.
"I don't want to say we are not going to miss Ricky because for sure we are going to miss him from many points of view.
"But at the same time I prefer to talk about who is going to play than who's not."
Both Navarro and Fernandez, who has just signed for Real Madrid, were improving, Scariolo said.
He is banking on the chemistry between his players, many of whom grew up playing together and remain close friends, to help give them an edge in London.
"We have a good squad of talented and very committed players and this is probably our secret," he said.
"There is not only talent but a lot of teamwork, a lot of desire to play together, to help each other and a lot of strong commitment to try to make something good or great as a team more than to shine individually.
"Our goal is to win a medal and I think for any sportsman or competitive person winning a medal at the Olympic Games is really the maximum you can aim for."
Asked whether he planned to stay on as Spain coach after his contract runs out in December, Scariolo said he would have to decide whether he was still willing to sacrifice time he could be spending with his family.
"From a professional point of view, everything is there to make this relationship last more years," he said.
"We have already started the conversations and, from a basketball point of view, absolutely.
"Basketball is very important but it's still only one part of my life."
Spain have been drawn in the same group as hosts Britain, Australia, Brazil and China, while the U.S. are in a group featuring France, Tunisia and the 2008 bronze medalists Argentina.
Those nine nations will be joined by three more qualifiers, with places to be decided at a tournament currently taking place in Venezuela.
(This story has been refiled to correct typo in para three)
(Editing by Matt Barker)
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