This is the game I've been waiting months for (same goes for Nico). When I looked at the EuroBasket table a month ago, I figured maybe France would get a shot at Spain in the finals, and I assumed if that were the case that the French would be the underdogs. Didn't exactly turn out that way. These two "Old Europe" teams meeting in the quarterfinals, with France technically the favorite (at least from a seeding perspective) is a rather unexpected twist. That's why they play the game (which starts at noon PST on ESPN360.com).
Spain v. France is a classic clash of experience versus youth. Spain isn't an old team by any stretch, but the core group of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jorge Garbajosa and Felipe Reyes has been playing together at EuroBasket since 2001, with the likes of Rudy Fernandez, Marc Gasol, Carlos Cabezas and Alex Mumbru all returning from the 2006 World Championship team. They've played in big games. They can handle the pressure.
The French, at least as it pertains to the current roster, are the exact opposite. This is the first time this group, with Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Ronni Turiaf and Florent Pietrus have played together for an extended period of time. You could look at that one of two ways. The positive spin is that they're young and still, in some respects, getting to know each other, so they're likely to improve every game. The flip side is that they've never been in this situation before as the favorites in the knockout round against a team most observers would consider the second best in the world (for what it's worth, FIBA has Spain ranked 4th, USA 2nd, Argentina 1st and France 17th).
If the French can, as Batum often says, "just play their game" without thinking about who they are and who the Spanish are, then their inexperience shouldn't be a problem.
While Spain might have the experience, the French have fresh legs. Vincent Collet, for one reason or another, rested most of his starters, including Parker, for much of their last qualifying round game against Greece on Monday. The Spanish didn't have to expend a ton of energy today against Poland, but a back-to-back is a back-to-back, regardless of the opponent. Tomorrow's game will be Spain's seventh in the past ten days and for that reason, I'd expect to see the French push the tempo early and often tomorrow.
The French also have post players to throw at Pau Gasol, a luxury most other teams in the tournament don't have. The elder Gasol has been nearly unstoppable since the first game against Serbia, a game that might have been his worst as an international. Top-10 in 11 different statistical rankings at EuroBasket, Pau is the straw that stirs the Spanish coffee. But the French have Turiaf, who probably knows Pau's game was well as anyone in the tournament, Boris Diaw and Florent Pietrus. Ali Traore and Alain Koffi, the resident bench bruisers for Les Bleus, probably won't be called upon unless the French have foul trouble (which has been an issue for Turiaf throughout the tournament), but they're big bodies who an bang on the defensive end. If the refs allow some rough and tumble in the post (which doesn't seem likely from what I've seen), the French stand a real good chance.
No one in the tournament has a guard who can keep Parker in front of them, including the Spanish. Rubio and Navarro are going to have a rough go containing, which could lead to Pau Gasol getting in foul trouble if he tries to contest at the basket consistently. Sending Pau to the bench would be more valuable for France than any points scored by Parker.
But the crux of the game, at least to my Trail Blazers colored glasses, is the showdown between Rudy and Nicolas. Rudy plays out on the wing with Navarro and Rubio starting at 1 and 2, and he's easily their most athletic back court player, so if I'm Collet, I'm tasking Batum with trying to shut him down. Nic is a real tough matchup for Rudy on both ends of the court (though the French don't seem to run much for Batum on offense). Then again, many a defender have been made to look foolish by Rudy's constant motion. Nicolas better be ready to closeout in a hurry.
My prediction? I'm going with the French. If Spain had an extra day to rest and prepare as France did, I'd probably go with the Iberians. But in this case, I'm betting on old age and treachery to succumb to youth and skill.