A YEAR AGO the U.S. entered the gold medal game of its Olympic qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico as only a slight favorite. But after the U.S. crushed Argentina 106--73, no one could reasonably dispute the postgame claim by Jermaine O'Neal: "We're the best in the world."
That was then. This is now: The U.S. enters Thursday's quarterfinal game against Spain as a definite underdog, "best in the world" replaced by "fourth best in Group B." While Spain, the surprise team of the tournament, has played a cohesive brand of ball in winning all five of its pool games, the U.S. players still look as if they are trying to learn one another's names. Nine of the 12 players (including O'Neal) who suited up for Larry Brown in Puerto Rico aren't in Athens, and even one of the world's best coaches hasn't been able to put together the pieces he has to work with.
Defenses have been swarming around Tim Duncan, who can't get a break against the clownish incompetence of international officials, and nothing good has happened when Duncan has kicked the ball back out. Take away the three-point shooting of Allen Iverson (who himself is a mediocre 8 of 25 from the arc), and the U.S. has made only 21 of 89 from a line that is more than two feet closer to the basket than the NBA three-point arc. Plus, the U.S. is playing horrible defense. Aside from that, life couldn't be better.
After the U.S. lost to Lithuania 94--90 last Saturday, Duncan said, "This helps our confidence because we played well." Has it come to this? The mighty U.S. spinning a message of optimism after giving up 94 points in a 40minute game? Only a gold medal will keep men's hoops from being the feel-bad story of the Olympics for the Americans. -- Jack McCallum