Don't question Dan Peterson's patriotism. He's as American as they come—grew up in the Midwest, went to one Big Ten school and apprenticed as an assistant coach at another. Just because he has chosen the expatriate's life in Italy doesn't mean he has lost his sense of country, and don't question his credentials. He's short in stature but long on success: During 13 seasons of coaching abroad, he has won two Italian League titles and finished second in the European Cup championship three times, developing a reputation as one of the finest coaches on the continent. We'll call him, as Italian fans do, Little Big Dan.
To Little Big Dan, thinking about it isn't a seditious act, just a healthy didactic exercise. And in the comfort of his spacious apartment in the middle of Milan, he has thought about it. A lot. What's it? Just this: Soviets or no-Showiets, the U.S. basketball team can be beaten for the gold medal this summer. The coaches of the three teams with the best chances of giving the favored hosts the troy-ounce bounce—Italy's Sandro Gamba, Spain's Antonio Diaz-Miguel and Yugoslavia's Mirko Novosel—all speak guardedly about what strategies they might employ against the U.S. But not Little Big Dan. He will tell you exactly how it can happen.
You probably already know about international rules. They're different from the NCAA's. Players get away with more contact. "Many international teams play a bumping defense," says Gamba. "In the States, maybe only Kentucky does." A wider, conical lane, which is 19'8" across the baseline compared with 12 feet under NCAA rules, puts a premium on passing over dribbling and makes quickness almost as important near the basket as height. The continuous play rule—a referee doesn't handle the ball after a turnover in the back-court—rewards experience, speed and alertness.
But, says Little Big Dan, "The wide lane, all that stuff, doesn't matter. Those are subtle things that the U.S. players should be able to handle if they're prepared." And Little Big Dan doesn't doubt for a minute that Bobby Knight, the U.S. coach, will have his team ready. No, the American team will face more fundamental problems. Little Big Dan sees three, all related to one another: the 30-second clock, the zone defense and the jump shot.
"The greatest handicap the U.S. players will have to overcome is the 30-second clock," he says. "They're going to have to attack. They'll have to play instinctive offense, which is something college basketball doesn't teach them." Little Big Dan, as we'll see, isn't a great fan of the college game. "The U.S. is only going to have 30 seconds to get a shot, and the Americans aren't going to get an easy layup, because most European teams play good defense, and a lot of them play zones."
Hence, the second problem. "If you're attacking, you can beat a zone. The great thing about a 30-second clock is that it forces you to attack rather than outwait a zone defense. But in college ball you're taught to work for a layup. The U.S. had better be willing to take and be able to make the 17-foot jump shot."
Which brings us to problem No. 3. Outside of Chris Mullin, and perhaps young Steve Alford, the U.S. team lacks pure shooters. "I don't usually coach a zone, but I might say, 'Let's build a tent around Patrick Ewing and his friends and see if your little people can hit jump shots,' " Little Big Dan says, practically rubbing his hands in glee.
So you throttle the Yank attack by packing the defense in, seeing if the Americans have a shooter who can open it up. But Little Big Dan isn't finished. There's his own offense, which would have to score against a Knight defense. And Little Big Dan thinks it can be done. "Knight believes in pressuring whoever has the ball. But the international player is mature. He's older than the American kid, and he's seen the double team enough to know when and how to kick the ball away.
"I'm going to move the ball around the perimeter, make the U.S. work hard. And I'll whip it inside, challenge the Americans in there. Hey, their entire team is going to have to adjust to 'athletic' basketball. They use a word over here to describe American college ball: 'scholastic' By that they don't mean high school. They mean very fine, precise—pretty.
"Now, I'm not saying I'd want to start a fight. But every shot will be contested. I'd declare war for every rebound, and open season—that means spending a few fouls—on any screen the Americans set. Do they have people who can battle for rebounds for 40 minutes with guys who are five to 10 years older?"