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As good as gold

Team USA poised to recapture role of world-beaters

Posted: Wednesday September 5, 2007 3:36PM; Updated: Wednesday September 5, 2007 3:36PM
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A well-constructed Team USA rolled through the FIBA Americas tournament.
A well-constructed Team USA rolled through the FIBA Americas tournament.
AP
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The U.S. men's basketball team qualified for next year's Olympics by cruising through the FIBA Americas tournament in Las Vegas last week, a development you might easily have missed because it didn't get much play in the press.

That's at least partly because the American men aren't considered nearly as newsworthy when they win as when they lose, which is when everyone trips over each other running to their laptops and microphones to decry the sorry state of American hoops. You know the drill -- the blacktop-bred Americans have lousy fundamentals, don't know or care about how to play defense, only want to dunk and shoot three-pointers, and on and on.

But the critics will soon have to find something else to carp about, because the United States is about to reassert itself as basketball's preeminent superpower. The American men will win the Olympic gold medal in Beijing next summer. Book it. Write it in ink. It will happen.

That might sound like typical American arrogance, especially considering Team USA fell short of gold at the last Olympics, along with getting embarrassed in a few other international tournaments in recent years. But the FIBA tournament, which the U.S. team concluded with a 118-81 win over Argentina in the championship game, was the clearest sign yet that the Americans' new approach to international basketball is working.

The Americans are about to rule the world in basketball again because they have changed -- not so much the way they play, but the way they prepare. They have figured out that they can't slap together a team of whatever NBA All-Stars are willing to take a break from their offseason partying and expect to beat talented, well-drilled teams from Europe and South America. They finally realize that they can't just rotate the head-coaching duties haphazardly from tourney to tourney as though it were just a ceremonial position. That might have worked when they were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the world in talent and coaching, but those days are gone.

Instead, USA Basketball, the sport's governing body, has brought a much-needed NBA sensibility to its operation. With former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo in charge, the Americans have a system with continuity instead of a slapdash approach. Colangelo put Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski in charge last year and Coach K will stay in that position at least through Beijing.

As for players, there have been real tryouts and cuts, instead of issuing invitations to all the big names and hoping they agree to grace the team with their presence. You have to love a team like the one that won the FIBA tournament, with a defensive stopper like Tayshaun Prince instead of a gunner like Vince Carter, for instance, and a three-point marksman like Michael Redd instead of higher-profile scattershot shooter like Allen Iverson.

The U.S. team still had plenty of star power, with Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Jason Kidd, among others, but they were stars who actually complement each other and who meet clearly defined needs. That core will stay mostly intact through 2008, with a tweak or two that may make it even better, like the return of the injured Dwyane Wade at guard.

It's true that the competition in 2008 will be stiffer than what the Americans faced in Las Vegas. Argentina, the defending Olympic champion, sent a watered-down team that didn't include Manu Ginobili, and other powerful teams like Italy, Greece and Serbia will be waiting. But they will be facing a true American team, one that has been constructed intelligently and that has practiced and prepared more thoroughly than any American team since the 1992 Dream Team.

Team USA won't dominate the Olympics the way it once did or the way it did in the FIBA tournament, where it won 10 games by an average of 39.5 points. But it will quiet the critics and bring back the right color medal. Get ready for a golden summer.

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