Give Little Big Dan the Spaniards. He'd like his chances with Spain, a team that comes out running and doesn't stop (see box, page 340). "You say Knight's going to eat that up?" he says. "Well, when they keep running and all their shots keep going in, he's not going to eat that up." Spain runs a sophisticated NBA-style break, with turn-outs (continuous motion), secondary and tertiary options, the whole shebang, and the Spaniards will run it anytime—off a rebound, after an opponent's basket and especially off a turnover, taking advantage of that quick inbounds rule.
And Spain has already beaten a top-flight U.S. team, 109-99, in the preliminary round of the 1982 world championships in Bogotá, Colombia. That squad was coached by Bob Weltlich, the former Knight assistant who is now at Texas. To be sure, Spain shot very well in that game—55.5% to be exact—but that really wasn't a fluke, because the Spaniards were getting many easy hoops off their running game. Says former UCLA guard Bill Sweek, who saw that game, "The U.S. ran a motion offense. The guards would come down to the baseline to set picks and be out of position to stop Spain's break." Knight, we need hardly be reminded, favors just such a motion offense.
"Diaz-Miguel is a fast-break coach who'll live and die with what he does best," Little Big Dan says. "With Spain, I'd try a tactical game, anything to avoid post-up, muscle-on-muscle, body-to-body play. I'm 100 percent sure that's what he's going to do. If they get running and get shooting.... That's how they beat Russia [95-94 in the 1983 European championships]. As they say in Italy, they're vaccinati. They've been around the block a few times."
And what of Italy? "With the Italian team I'd play Knight the most straight-up game of all," says Little Big Dan. "Hurt him with the outside shot. The Italians have a young guard named Antonello Riva. He'll fire from anywhere, even beyond 25 feet, and you'd better get in his face, because they're like layups to him. If Knight puts Michael Jordan on Riva, Jordan'll hold him to 15—on five three-point plays. Basket, foul, free throw; basket, foul, free throw...and Jordan has fouled out."
The Italians could defeat the U.S. in L.A., if only because they set a precedent of sorts by beating the Soviets 87-85 in Moscow. Italy did that in the 1980 Olympic semifinal round, and without unleashing the controlled fast breaks that Gamba favors. In other words, Italy beat the Soviets at their own half-court game, with picks and rolls and shots from the foul circle—and with a superior defensive job by swingman Romeo Sacchetti on the Soviets' star guard, Sergei Belov.
If the U.S. and Italy meet—at press time the Olympic draw hadn't been made, but it's highly probable that the Americans will have to beat each of their three main challengers at least once if they're to win the gold medal—Sacchetti will be the man primarily responsible for guarding Jordan, though not by his lonesome. "Gamba will play a man-to-man defense with rotating help," Little Big Dan says. "He'll stray from man-to-man only if he's seen other teams have success with a zone. On offense, he'll get the ball to Dino Meneghin [see box, page 347]. Meneghin is like Bad, Bad Leroy Brown or, to put it another way, Mark Gastineau in a basketball uniform."
As for the Yugoslavs, "They'll be the most unpredictable opponent for the U.S. team," Little Big Dan says. "Knight won't be able to get a line on them, and Novosel will want it that way. They know no fear. For years their best guys have been playing with and against Americans in Europe. If you underrate them you're making a sad mistake. They're white playground players [see box, page 352]. Try to foul a Yugoslav, he'll change hands and make a three-point play on you. And these guys can jump. They do not have the disease."
Although the Yugoslavs are weak in individual defense, that may actually prove to be a blessing against the Americans. Yugoslavia shouldn't be tempted to play the U.S. man-to-man. Certainly Little Big Dan wouldn't be tempted. "I'd put three guys around Ewing and dare the others to beat me," he says. The Yugoslavs play with almost fanatic passion, and they have a geriatric frontcourt that will look to Novosel, who guided the Yugoslavs to glorious triumphs in the '70s, for inspiration. "If Novosel decides to try to squeeze one last thing out of the old guys, he's the only man who could do it, because they all love him."
Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia aren't the only countries with a shot at upsetting the U.S. At the Pan American Games in Caracas last summer, Brazil came within three points of beating Jordan, Sam Perkins, Wayman Tisdale & Co. Mexico, which didn't even qualify for the Olympics, went out to a 20-4 lead against that same U.S. squad before losing. Canada beat a weaker U.S. team at the World University Games in Edmonton earlier last summer. And Uruguay defeated the Canadians last May in the American Olympic Qualifying Tournament in São Paulo, Brazil.
The bottom line is that the other basketball-playing nations are steadily catching up to the U.S. The first clear sign of American vulnerability was the 51-50 loss in the gold medal game to the U.S.S.R. in the 1972 Olympics, the first and only time the U.S. has been beaten in the Games. It was as much a harbinger as it was a fluke. Ultimately, of course, that game was decided by an official from FIBA, the sport's international governing body. But remember that the U.S. trailed by as many as eight points with 6:07 to go.