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This One Is Not a Surprise : Basketball: Italy defeats United States, 81-72, proving yet again the world is catching up to Americans.


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Italy's first victory over the United States in international basketball since 1978 did not provoke a wild celebration at midcourt. None of the Italians even rocked the baby, as their point guard--the cool Claudio Coldebella--did when victory was assured in an earlier game against Brazil.

No, they expected to defeat the United States on Wednesday at the Sport and Concert Complex in the semifinals of the Goodwill Games. Although the ease with which they accomplished that, 81-72, might have been a surprise, their bright, young coach, Ettore Messina, convinced them beforehand that a close loss would still be a loss.

"You have to believe you can win," he said.

So they did, scoring the first seven points of the second half to turn a one-point halftime deficit into a six-point lead that the United States never overcame.

But there was another reason for the Italians' reserve after advancing to today's final against Puerto Rico: "We know it's not the Dream Team we beat," Coldebella said.

Coldebella knows it as well as anyone in Italy. In the athletic apparel store he owns in Bologna, where he plays professionally for the team that has won two consecutive Italian League championships, Dream Team merchandise is his best seller.

Coldebella said the Italians also know that the United States left many of its best collegians from last season at home. Glenn Robinson of Purdue and Jason Kidd of California turned pro; Corliss Williamson of Arkansas and Randolph Childress of Wake Forest were injured, and Ed O'Bannon of UCLA and Marcus Camby of Massachusetts had to hit the books.

Still, Coldebella and his teammates should not diminish their accomplishment. The players representing the United States might not be considered as even a collegiate Dream Team, but neither are they 12 guys from Backwater A&M.

Five went to last season's Final Four, including Duke's Cherokee Parks and Arizona's Damon Stoudamire. And if history is an accurate precursor, virtually all of them will some day have a shot at the NBA. Of 25 players on U.S. teams in the 1986 and '90 Goodwill Games, 22 became NBA first-round draft choices.

"I came over here feeling we had enough talent to win," U.S. Coach George Raveling said.

Instead, the United States will play for third place against Russia, which lost to Puerto Rico, 69-65, in the other semifinal game.

Before the tournament, a Raveling assistant scouted the Americans' three first-round opponents, including the Russians, who beat them, 77-75, Sunday. But Raveling said he did not know much more about the Italians than what he saw here during their first-round games, all victories. There was not much more to know.

Italy, second in the European Championships as recently as 1991, hit bottom last year when it failed to qualify for the final tournament to determine Europe's representatives in next month's World Championships at Toronto.

The federation responded by firing the coach and hiring Messina from Bologna. His first act was to cut several stars, whom he called prima donnas, and replace them with players who have less talent but fit better into his disciplined system.

"I have a lot of international experience, and that is as well-coached a team as I have coached against in some 20 odd years," Raveling said. "There is no question that tonight they were the superior basketball team. To suggest anything else would be foolish."

That is not a new phenomenon. In recent years, the United States has won only one major international title. That was in the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona, where it used the Dream Team. It no doubt will win again in Toronto with Dream Team II.

But it is apparent that the lion king of basketball can no longer just roll the ball onto the floor, send any combination of college players after it and expect them to come home with gold medals.

Raveling said that USA Basketball, which governs teams that represent the country internationally, is perpetually seeking incentives to coax the best college players to participate. But even if they want to play, he said, increased academic pressures often prevent them from having their summers free.

"If we had our best college kids here, that would have been enough," Raveling said. "But our system doesn't lend to that."

The other factor is that most of the opposing teams are composed of more mature and internationally experienced professionals. That would not have made much difference a decade ago, but it does now because foreign teams have improved significantly.

"Americans need to understand that these other countries are efficient at basketball," Raveling said. "We don't see a lot of international basketball other than the Olympics, so we don't get a chance to appreciate Italian basketball, Brazilian basketball, Croatian basketball. There are a lot of countries that play good basketball."

The United States can even learn from them. After seeing teams play here, Raveling said he is intrigued by the international trend of placing good-shooting centers outside so that more space is created underneath the basket for free-flowing offenses.

"Maybe that's an even more efficient way to play the game than we do," he said. "Maybe we've retarded the progress of our big men by confining them to a small area. I hope we're not so egotistical that we can't look at this objectively and see if it's something that is adaptable to our basketball."

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