- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2006

SAPPORO, Japan — The last time the Americans won the world championship, it seemed they might never lose again.

That was way back in 1994, when the U.S. team tore through Toronto with an 8-0 record. Coming two years after the Dream Team’s roll through the Barcelona Olympics with the same record, the Americans had won their first two major international competitions with NBA players by more than 40 points a game.

Not only was the United States back on top of the basketball world, but the gap appeared larger than ever.

“That was a special period in time, a special generation of players,” USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “That was then.”

The now is a list of recent results that are good, but well short of what’s expected: third in the 1998 world championship, gold at the 2000 Olympics, sixth in the worlds in 2002, third in the Athens Games two years ago.

Oddsmaker William Hill has the United States listed as the 2-to-5 favorite this time, and international stars Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki are among those who have said the U.S. team is one of the top contenders in the tournament.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Americans looked the part during exhibition play, winning their five games by an average of 34.2 points.

So is this the return to U.S. dominance?

Don’t count on it.

The non-U.S. players no longer come to these events just to meet the Americans. The plan now is to beat them.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to see again a U.S. team that beats everyone else by a big margin. That was 15 years ago or whenever it was,” Argentina’s Ginobili said in a story on FIBA.com.

“Now basketball has changed and many of us are playing with them every single day, so we’re getting closer. So you’re not going to see a U.S. team, even though they are very good, beating everyone else by 30 points. That’s part of the past.”

Argentina is one of the teams that made it that way. The Argentinians were the gold medalists in Athens and runners-up in the 2002 worlds — with victories over the U.S. during both events. Ginobili and Chicago’s Andres Nocioni highlight one of the most experienced teams in the field.

But Argentina lost twice during exhibition play to Spain, which went 9-0 during warm-up play. Led by All-Star Pau Gasol, the Spaniards also were undefeated during pool play in Athens before the Americans played their best game of the tournament and knocked them off in the quarterfinals.

Greece, the 2005 European champion; France, with NBA stars Tony Parker and Boris Diaw; and Lithuania are among the other top contenders in the 24-team field.

Serbia and Montenegro appears too inexperienced to defend the consecutive world championship won by Yugoslavia in 1998 and 2002, and the Germans lack the necessary help for Nowitzki after finishing third in Indianapolis four years ago.

The world championship begins tomorrow at four sites in Japan. Playing in Group D, the Americans have one of the easiest brackets — they routed opponents Puerto Rico and China during exhibition play — and shouldn’t be tested much before the field is reduced to 16 when the teams move to the Tokyo suburb of Saitama.

Argentina, France and Serbia and Montenegro are in a tougher Group A in Sendai — along with a Lebanon team that will try to bring a bit of good news to a country in need of it. Greece, Brazil, Lithuania and Australia are part of a deep Group C in Hamamatsu.

For the Americans, the biggest roadblock again could come in the form of a zone defense.

Though they play it less against each other, international teams favor it as a way to slow the Americans, who have lacked reliable perimeter shooting during their recent struggles. Some opponents sat back in one for nearly all 40 minutes in Athens, where the U.S. team shot 31 percent from 3-point range to tie for 10th in the 12-team tournament.

“For some reason, the world thinks it’s cast a spell on American basketball by saying Americans can’t play against a zone,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I guess we’ll see.”

The Americans seem better prepared to handle it this time after shooting 41 percent from behind the arc during exhibition play. But they struggled in their lone close game, going 10-for-29 in a 90-86 victory over Brazil.

“What’s out there and our group needs to shatter, that is the U.S. can’t play against a zone,” Krzyzewski said. “And I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to do that. If we don’t, then we haven’t done a good job.”

They haven’t always in the past: Fans in the United States — where the world championship isn’t treated as seriously as it is around the world — might be surprised to know the Americans have won the title only three times in 14 tries since the event debuted in 1950.

Krzyzewski is back for another try at winning one after taking bronze in 1990. James, Wade and Anthony are also back in USA uniforms after they were part of the latest U.S. disappointment in Athens.

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