- - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This is the USA’s real dream team, the one that’s been a nightmare for all comers in the last five Summer Olympics and is a virtually guaranteed to be likewise this year in Rio.

They are our women’s basketball team, 58-3 all-time in Olympic competition, with sights on a record sixth consecutive gold medal. They haven’t lost a game since the former Soviet Union’s “Unified Team” won a 79-73 squeaker in the 1992 semifinals.

You might recall that was the Barcelona Olympics, when the men featured NBA players for the first time and arguably fielded the greatest sports team ever assembled. The “Dream Team” defeated opponents by an average of 44 points en route to recapturing the gold medal we lost with our college players in 1988.

The world’s men have become much more competitive since then. The gold medal game against Spain at the London Olympics featured 16 lead changes and six ties before LeBron James & Co. prevailed, 107-100. The margin was even slimmer 99-94 in an earlier pool-play victory against Lithuania.

But hoop-playing women haven’t closed the gap much. The average margin of victory has been 30 points during Team USA’s 42-game Olympic win streak.

The U.S. women’s basketball team is the hunted. They accept and embrace it, taking their cue from a coach who’s quite comfortable in that position.

“When you know you’re good and you know you’ve done it and you know what you have to do to get it, I think you have to turn that pressure around on the other team,” Geno Auriemma told reporters.

He easily could’ve been speaking of his phenomenal success at Connecticut.

“We already know that if we lose, nobody is going to be more devastated than us,” Auriemma said. “So we don’t allow ourselves to think like that.”

Auriemma’s Huskies have recorded six undefeated seasons and won 11 national titles. It’s no wonder that so many of his former players have contributed to Team USA’s success.

UConn alums Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi — four-time Olympians — are captains along with Tamika Catchings. Former Huskies Maya Moore and Tina Charles are back from the 2012 Olympic team. Among newcomers for 2016 is the latest Storrs sensation, Breanna Stewart, the first woman to earn four Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards.

“Having players who have played together as teammates that really, really helps a lot,” Auriemma said earlier this summer on a media teleconference. “The fact that the majority of them played together at the world championship in 2016, that helps a lot. And the majority of the team were in London [in 2012]. So, there is a history of being together. Without that continuity, it would be very, very difficult.”

Life in Rio won’t be any more difficult than the expected competition. The women’s basketball team as well as the men’s team reportedly are staying aboard a luxury cruise ship, opposed to the austere Olympic Village.

No sense in acting like the hoops stars are ordinary Olympic athletes. They’re highly-compensated athletes much like pro golfers and tennis players such as Bubba Watson and Serena Williams. If they opt for upgrades closer to plush condos than college dorm rooms, I don’t blame them.

Regardless of where the women’s team bunks at night, opponents probably won’t get much sleep the night before games. Auriemma’s practices likely are rougher than some of the games we’ll see. Tuesday’s session reportedly was intensely competitive, with contested shots, ferocious rebounds and hard screens.

“I think it gives us confidence to know that we’re going up against the most competitive players in each other,” Moore told reporters. “We’re pushing each other so we can know what to expect. If we can do it against each other, we can do it against anyone else in the world.”

They start Sunday at 11 a.m. against Senegal. The Senegalese didn’t face the U.S. in their only other Olympic appearance, which was at the Sydney Games in 2000 when they finished last (12th place). They’ll have to look elsewhere for their first Olympic victory.

Meanwhile, Olympic rookies such as Brittney Griner are looking for their first gold medal. There’s no complacency when your mantle is bare, but that isn’t what drives her.

“I don’t look at it as pressure to win gold again,” Griner told reporters. “More I don’t want to let down the players that have set the standard, set the bar of how USA Basketball is supposed to go.

“We’re all here, we all come together to make each other better so we can go do what we need to do. We really do want the lady next to us to get better.”

That’s the thing, though. They can’t be much better.

But they’ll keep trying anyway.

“We’re not as good as we’re going to be, and that’s kind of the way it’s been for us at the Olympics,” Auriemma said.

It’s been a dream since the 1996 Games in Atlanta. No pinches necessary.

This story has been corrected. It originally stated that UConnn had five undefeated seasons and that Auriemma had won nine national titles.

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