Stunned U.S. isn't as good as gold again

World semifinal loss to Greece extends basketball drought


September 02, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Reporter

A U.S. loss in an international basketball tournament no longer elicits shock.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Carmelo Anthony and the Americans were to meet Argentina today in the bronze-medal game at the FIBA world championships in Japan. Its gold-medal plans were wrecked in yesterday's 101-95 semifinal loss to Greece. By one measure the first U.S. loss in the tournament is a considerable improvement over two recent flops in international play. Still, it was a huge disappointment.

A losing streak to the Argentines traces the Americans' fall from grace in the game that was invented in the U.S.

Tomorrow will mark the fourth anniversary of a loss to Argentina at the 2002 world championships in Indianapolis. After then losing to Yugoslavia and Spain, the latter in the sixth-place game, the United States promised to do better at the 2004 Olympics.

It didn't, as a nation that entered with two losses in Olympic play fell three times at the Athens Games, never threatening eventual gold medalist Argentina in the semifinals. After that fiasco, Argentine guard Pepe Sanchez, who played collegiately for Temple, said this about the U.S.: "They're obviously more athletic. They've got great players, but we're a little smarter on how to play the game and fundamentals."

That quote resonates, despite a promise for better organization from USA Basketball after coach George Karl took the fall at the 2002 world championships and a fear of terrorism caused several veterans to back out of the 2004 Olympics.

Former Phoenix Suns executive Jerry Colangelo was made the first managing director of the men's senior team, and Krzyzewski was appointed coach. He has made Duke a perennial No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the loss to Greece means that only once since 1992, when he won the second of his three national championships, has he finished a campaign with a win.

From Tommy Amaker in 1987 to Shelden Williams this past season, Krzyzewski produced the college National Defensive Player of the Year nine times in the past two decades. A lineup that included Anthony, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, however, was unable to defend the pick and roll that Greece ran in its semifinal victory.

That was not Karl Malone and John Stockton running a primary building block of basketball. While Argentina relies on Manu Ginobili, Germany builds around Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash, a Canadian, is the league's two-time Most Valuable Player, Greece does not have one player with NBA experience.

Were some of the young Americans confused by an unfamiliar opponent?

"To lose any game is a shock to us," said Anthony, who in March 2001 was still playing for Towson Catholic High. "We came in with the mentality to win the game and the gold medal."

The U.S. had a 33-21 lead with less than seven minutes remaining in the second quarter, but Greece connected on nine straight shots before the break and took a 65-51 lead midway through the third quarter. While the Greeks made 63 percent of their field-goal attempts, the U.S. continued to misfire from three-point range, as it made just two of 10 beyond the arc.

The winner of the gold-medal game between Greece and Spain will gain an automatic berth in the 2008 Olympics, along with host China.

An American group that was being called the "Redeem Team" - a twist on the Dream Team, the 1992 Olympic lineup that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird - will go to the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela next summer looking to advance to Beijing while continuing to develop the rotation and cohesion that Argentina takes for granted.

"This one hurts," Colangelo said. "We had the gold medal as our goal and anything short is disappointing. We'll go back to work and get ready for qualifying next summer."

Note -- Nigeria's Ekene Ibekwe, who'll be a senior forward for Maryland this season, had 22 points and 10 rebounds in a one-point loss to Nowitzki and Germany.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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