Elizabeth Dalziel / associated press
Tuesday, July 15, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Doesn’t FIBA watch its own sport? The international governing body of basketball lists the United States atop its latest world rankings.
What exactly are they drinking these days at the hoops headquarters on Avenue Louis Casai in Geneva?
To whom it may concern in Switzerland: The Americans are mired in their worst international slump. This is the only stretch in which the Americans have failed to reach three consecutive title games on the global stage.
That includes the 2002 and 2006 World Championships and the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
“I didn’t know it’s at three,” said U.S. assistant coach Mike D’Antoni. “It’s why we have to send the best. We have to be prepared. There are no guarantees.”
Shock defeats have come against Argentina (twice), Greece, Lithuania, Puerto Rico, Spain and the former Yugoslavia this decade. If the Soviet Union hadn’t broken apart, the sorry stretch might have been longer.
“Has it been a lack of respect or did they just beat us?” said guard Michael Redd. “That’s the major question. We’re not arrogant enough to overlook anybody. I think they just beat us.
“The world has definitely caught up.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski believes the United States could lose again if it’s not careful.
“We can get beat,” he said. “One of the ways of not losing is to recognize that we can get beat and figure out how not to put yourself in that situation.”
Here’s a closer look at the national team, the qualifying tournament in Athens, the groups in Beijing and a few rivals who want to extend the Americans’ dark period.
WHO WILL TEST THE U.S. TEAM?
Argentina: It has NBAers Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto, and Manu Ginobili is the only player to win NBA and Euroleague titles and an Olympic gold medal. It beat Italy in Athens in 2004. “The champions,” said Kobe Bryant, “until someone else proves otherwise.”
China: Houston Rockets center Yao Ming has a foot injury that won’t be completely healed for a year. He is training with the team. That’s what you do when you shoulder the expectations of more than a billion people. Yao welcomes the pressure.
Greece: The Greeks defeated the United States, 101-95, in a semifinal of the World Championship in Tokyo in 2006. All the principals, including point man Theo Papaloukas, are back.
Lithuania: Darius Songaila outside, and Linas Kleiza and Ramunas Siskauskas inside will complement Sarunas Jasikevicius on a squad that finished third in last year’s EuroBasket tournament. Cleveland won’t let injury-prone center Zydrunas Ilgauskas play for his national team.
Russia: In the quarterfinals, we peg the United States against Russia and Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko. All the Russians have done is win the EuroBasket championship last year. J.R. Holden, born in America and schooled at Bucknell, averaged 11.6 points on that team.
Spain: Five NBAers, including Pau Gasol, are on the roster. It won the 2006 worlds in Japan and lost to Russia, on a last-second shot, during last year’s EuroBasket finale. The Spaniards beat the Americans for fifth place in the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis. A coaching change might cause waves.
Puerto Rico: Carlos Arroyo and Larry Ayuso make the team dangerous. They combined to average 42.4 points at the worlds in Japan. Remember, it beat the United States, 92-73, in the first game of the 2004 Olympics.
Prediction: China satisfies the locals by eking into the knockout stage, then Greece ends the hosts’ dream. Spain beats a hobbling Argentina team, then the Spanish beat Greece to reach the final.
On the other side of the bracket, Lithuania and Puerto Rico play the best quarterfinal game. Lithuania emerges with a shot at the United States after the Americans dispose of Russia.
Jasikevicius needs much more help, though, as Jason Kidd, Chris Paul and Deron Williams run roughshod on the Lithuanian backcourt.
In the final, for a change, it’s not fool’s gold for the Americans. A day after turning 30, Kobe Bryant goes for 30 in a runaway victory.
DOWN THE LANE
X-factor: Remember Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius?
He missed a 3-pointer at the end of a semifinal against the United States in the 2000 Sydney Olympics that would have started the American basketball spiral two years early.
Four years later, in Athens, Jasikevicius scored 28 points, on 7-of-12 shooting beyond the 3-point arc, to guide Lithuania to victory over the Americans in the group stage.
Jasikevicius stared down Lamar Odom as he coolly walked to the free-throw line to complete a four-point play. Jasikevicius shushed his teammates, who wanted to explode after beating the United States.
He went to high school in Pennsylvania and played at the University of Maryland. In Athens, he explained why Lithuania and other European squads are good.
“We have to stress skills and fundamentals,” he said. “We’re not blessed with athletic ability, so we have to really go the other way around. Kids are taught fundamentals, like shooting and dribbling.
“We do practice a lot more than kids in high school in the U.S.”
Fundamentals? In the United States? That means an iPod to tune out the world and an ability to dunk from several angles.
The big game: The atmosphere at the gold medal game at Wukesong Indoor Stadium in Beijing on Aug. 24 probably won’t compare with the that of first game of the tournament.
China and the United States are in Group B, and they will play each other at 10:15 p.m. local time on Aug. 10.
If Yao plays and China wins, it will rival July 11, 2006 — when Liu Xiang set a 110-meter hurdles world record — as the country’s top sporting day.
Don’t expect that to happen. In the Olympics and World Championships, the United States is 9-0 — winning by an average score of 111-70 — against the Chinese.
Teams, with world ranking:
Australia: 9 tie
Puerto Rico: 12*
Germany: 9 tie*
* We predict Greece, Puerto Rico and Germany will grab spots in the Olympics in the qualifying tournament in Athens this week.
QUICK HITS WITH KOBE
Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant will play in his first major international tournament in Beijing. He answered a few questions when he was in Las Vegas recently with Team USA.
How’s the broken pinkie?
It’s sore once in a while, but it’s manageable. Hopefully, it stays that way.
What’s it been like playing for Mike Krzyzewski, whose Duke team you nearly played for out of high school?
Everything I thought it would be. I waited 11 years to play for him. He’s a great guy and an incredible coach. I’ve learned a lot from him already.
What have you taken from him?
The passion he has for it. The respect he has for his players. Above all else, he wants his players to play well. He wants to win. He’s very engaging with all of us. His message is clear.
What’s it like playing with veteran point guard Jason Kidd?
Some of the shots you get, you tend to be uncomfortable with because they’re so damn easy. The moment a defender turns his head, the ball is coming.
How different have you found playing for your country?
It means everything, especially considering the state of things ... obviously, we’re far from being soldiers or anything like that. We’re basketball players, but it’s our way to represent the country the way it should be represented.
If the United States doesn’t win gold in Beijing, what will the excuse be?
Uh, you’re asking me to think of an excuse? I can’t come up with one because I expect us to win.
With all these superstars on your team, could there be an issue with taking big shots?
No. Everyone knows I’ll take it.