Ever since the Americans relinquished international basketball supremacy at the 2002 World Championships, every subsequent major competition has been billed as the one where America gets its groove back. It has yet to happen. Despite proclamations from everyone involved in the team about how things were going to change, the 2004 Olympics and 2006 Worlds both finished with the U.S. team wearing bronze medals around their necks. But this time it's going to be different. Really.
The U.S. Basketball team arrived in China yesterday and will spend the next 11 days preparing to win back the men's basketball gold medal that used to be an American birthright. The 2004 team in Athens lost more games (3) than every other American Olympic team in history combined (2 -- and one of those losses came in the infamous 1972 gold medal robbery against the Soviets), putting the pressure on the 2008 squad which has lamely been nicknamed "The Redeem Team".
Alright, first of all, "The Redeem Team" sounds like the name of a bad Hollywood movie pitch about two religious guys who travel around the world saving people, but to hilarious results. (Starring Ashton Kutcher and The Rock!) Second of all, it's great that the 2004 team set the bar so low that merely doing what's expected -- winning a gold medal -- will seem like an accomplishment for the U.S..
You can debate all you want about the difficulties American players face in an international game and how other nations have more cohesive teams, but the fact is that the U.S. should be winning Olympic Basketball gold every four years. Poor organizational structure in USA Basketball and poor choices for past teams (the only true point guard on the Athens team was Stephon Marbury) is what sunk the American squad over the past eight years. Hopefully that's being remedied by Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski. (Although if Krzyzewski's recent Tournament runs are any indication, LeBron & Co. will be upset in the medal round by Seton Hall.)
The bulk of these players have played together in off-season international tournaments for three years, thanks to an initiative by Colangelo to build a stable, core team. He based this on the models of Argentina and Spain, the past two major tournament winners. It's perhaps the last trick left in the bag. As usual, everyone expects the U.S. to win gold this time because of these changes but fail to remember that this same core group got bullied around by the Greeks in the '06 Worlds and haven't played against legitimate competition since then.
Krzyzewski and Colangelo are saying and doing all the right things. They've selected a team better suited to international play, they haven't loaded up on 6'8 forwards like the past three losing squads have done and they are dedicating more time to practice than any American team has done in the recent past. Once again, the ship looks righted. But we've seen this movie before. Should the U.S. win gold in Beijing? Absolutely, but they should have won in Athens too.
Coach K has said he wants the next week to be distraction free, so the players can focus on preparation for the Games. Naturally, he and the team decided to spend that time in Macau, the biggest gambling city in the world. I guess they'll do that whole "no distraction" thing next time.