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ATHENS 2004

Young U.S. Is Routed by Italy

Men's basketball team commits 23 turnovers and is embarrassed, 95-78, in Germany in an Olympic tuneup.

August 04, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

Years of hints that the U.S. Olympic men's team was nearing the end of its international basketball reign turned into a loud slap in the face Tuesday, 12 days before the U.S. will take to the court in the suddenly unpredictable Athens tournament.

Team USA's 95-78 loss at Cologne, Germany, to an Italian team devoid of NBA stars was its first loss in an exhibition game in which it used professional players. Late on defense, guilty of 23 turnovers and so uncoordinated offensively that they produced a mere 15 assists, the U.S. players were overwhelmed by a fundamentally sound Italian team that moved the ball well, shot well, and penetrated at will.

The U.S. team's first game at Athens is Aug. 15 against Puerto Rico. It will then play each of the other teams in Group B -- Angola, Australia, Greece and Lithuania -- to determine which four will advance to the quarterfinals.

"They're going to be in for a lot of lessons the next two weeks," Coach Larry Brown said of his players, whose average age of 23.6 is the youngest since NBA stars began competing in the Olympics in 1992. "They learned that there are great players around the world and great coaches around the world....

"We're going to have to grow up very quickly."

Brown's team faces Germany -- led by Dallas Maverick center-forward Dirk Nowitzki -- today at Cologne (11 a.m., ESPN) before completing pre-Olympic play against Serbia and Montenegro at Belgrade on Friday, and against Turkey on Sunday and Tuesday at Istanbul. The U.S. team began exhibition play Saturday with a 96-71 rout of Puerto Rico, despite Brown's decision to bench Allen Iverson, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire as punishment for having arrived late to a team meeting.

"This was a shellacking, an embarrassing moment for USA Basketball," ESPN commentator Bill Walton said after Tuesday's game. "The U.S. [has] a lot of work ahead."

The U.S. is 24-0 at the Olympics since 1992 and has won three gold medals, but its margins of victory have shrunk and it has encountered more close calls. The Sydney team trailed Lithuania, 81-80, in the waning seconds of their semifinal game and was spared a loss only when Sarunas Jasikevicius missed a three-point shot as time ran out. In the gold-medal game, the Americans led France by only 76-72 with 4:26 to play before regaining their composure and winning, 85-75.

After its sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championships, the U.S. had to compete in a qualifying tournament to secure a berth at the Athens Games. It won the Tournament of the Americas last summer, but the only players from that team who remain on the Olympic roster are Iverson, Tim Duncan and Richard Jefferson. Others declined consideration or withdrew for a variety of reasons that included fatigue, a desire to spend time with their families or allusions to concerns about security in Athens.

Iverson, who had 13 points, three turnovers and one assist in 26 minutes against Italy on Tuesday, said he and his teammates didn't communicate well enough on defense and didn't play intensely at both ends of the court.

"This was a wake-up call for us," he said. "I honestly think we needed something like this to understand it's not going to be easy in [the Olympic] tournament. I think this is going to help us down the road."

Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets, who last week said the U.S. was "guaranteeing a gold medal," had a team-high 19 points Tuesday. Duncan was the top rebounder with 10.

Giacomo Galanda led Italy with 28 points, and Gianluca Basile had 25, including seven-of-15 shooting from three-point range. Both play in their country's league; the national team has played together for years, unlike the U.S. team.

"We took them by surprise," Italy's coach, Carlo Recalcati, told Associated Press. "They didn't expect us to be such good shooters. They didn't know us."

Tuesday's defeat was also a product of two factors beyond Brown's control: his inability to persuade elite players to represent the U.S. at Athens, and the great strides other nations have made in improving their basketball programs -- many of them by sending top players to North America.

According to the NBA, there were 67 international players from 33 countries and territories on its teams' rosters as of March 15. In addition, nine foreign-born players were chosen in the first round of the NBA draft in June.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

U.S. Losses

Losses by the U.S. senior men's national basketball team since 1992, when NBA players were first eligible to play, in order of greatest deficit:

17 Italy 95, United States 78

Aug. 3, 2004 at Cologne, Germany

7 Argentina 87, United States 80

Sept. 4, 2002 at Indianapolis

6 Spain 81, United State 75

Sept. 7, 2002 at Indianapolis

3 Yugoslavia 81, United States 78

Sept. 5, 2002 at Indianapolis

Coming Up

The U.S. schedule this month:

* Today, vs. Germany at Cologne

* Friday, vs. Serbia and Montenegro at Belgrade

* Sunday, vs. Turkey at Istanbul

* Aug. 10, vs. Turkey at Istanbul

OLYMPIC GROUP PLAY

* Aug. 15, vs. Puerto Rico

at Athens

* Aug. 17, vs. Greece

* Aug. 19, vs. Australia

* Aug. 21, vs. Lithuania

* Aug. 23, vs. Angola

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