No going back

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Drum up talk about men's basketball in the upcoming Olympics, and more often than not the discussion will regress into how "it was better when we sent the college kids."

How quaint. And how ridiculous.

"There's been a lot of talk – especially after what happened in the [2002] World Championships [in which the United States finished sixth] – that maybe we should go back to college kids," U.S. Olympic coach Larry Brown said. "I've always felt that was unrealistic because I didn't think college kids could win in the Olympics."

The "Dream Team" system – sending American professional rather than college players – has lost its shine since it first was used in 1992, but it increasingly is a matter of necessity rather than choice. Sending college players to Athens would result in such an absolute massacre – we're talking nightly double-digit losses – that it is amazing so many Americans still wish we would.

Times change, folks. No matter how pure and endearing it may sound to send the kids, do you really think having Louisville center David Padgett guard Yao Ming helps anyone? Do you think Texas swingman P.J. Tucker can contain Dirk Nowitzki? You think college kids would match up well against a Serbia and Montenegro team with an entire roster full of current or former NBAers?

Can we end the charade of wishful thinking?

Those players were part of the USA Basketball Young Men's team – college all-stars – that qualified for the World Championships by winning a tournament in Canada this weekend.

But the last time college kids won gold in full Olympic competition (non-boycott years) was 1976.

Two radical and impossible to reverse factors have changed since then.

First, the entire world now produces NBA players, and the entire world proudly sends them to the Olympics. The United States still may have the most great players, but it no longer has a monopoly.

Second, the best young American players no longer attend college. In 1988, when the Soviet Union beat the United States in the semifinals, the American roster featured David Robinson, Danny Manning, Stacey Augmon, Dan Majerle and J.R. Reid, to name a few. Most of them were juniors or seniors.

Today none of those guys (well, maybe Robinson, who attended Navy) would play in the NCAA. Now the best young American players either altogether skip school or last only a year, which is why the college-level team is full of nice but hardly spectacular players like Villanova's Curtis Sumpter and Wake Forest's Justin Gray.

College kids just aren't what they used to be.

The 2004 Olympic team does feature five players who, in a different era, would be either in college or just getting out this year: LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Emeka Okafor and Amare Stoudemire. That's why this team's average age is just 23.6.

These Olympics should be competitive. Due to the loss in the 2002 World Championships, it is Serbia-Montenegro, not the United States, that is FIBA’s top-rated team. We should be the best team in Athens, but not by that much.

The U.S. team, of course, has gotten as much fanfare for who isn't here as for who is. Fourteen NBA players publicly turned down invitations or overtures to play. For a lot of Americans who still believe that representing our country in the Games means something, it has left a sour taste.

But that stuff is overblown. Pat Tillman is an athlete who represented our country. The Olympics is a big corporate sporting event.

All of this should make the ones who are going even more likable, comprising "the coalition of the willing," as some have dubbed them.

"We are not an all-star team," said Brown, noting the missing mega-stars. "Our challenge is to play the right way every single night and uphold the great tradition that we have in Olympic competition."

You might wish you could turn back the clock, resurrect Henry Iba and find a bunch of college kids who could do that.

But you can't. And we should stop dreaming that we can.

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