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USA Basketball Is Back On Track

LAS VEGAS, Aug. 22 - I don't think I'm making a bold prediction here, nor am I wearing my USA Basketball underoos - to borrow a phrase from Post columnist Mike Wise - but I don't see any way the current edition of Team USA loses a game in the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which starts today.

I arrived in Sin City this week, but it feels like I stepped into a bizarro world, because for the first time in awhile, the U.S. is sending the best team it possibly can to an international event. Injuries, of course, kept Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh off the squad (and I'm not sure what would've happened with Gilbert Arenas, even if he wasn't trying to recover from knee surgery). But this team is really loaded, while the other nations in this 10-team tournament, such as reigning Olympic champion Argentina, are far from imposing.

Trust me, I'm not looking at this through red, white and blue blinders. I've kept tabs on the U.S. teams for years and I covered the 2004 Olympics in person. I'm aware of flaws of past teams, have examined all the reasons for the failures. I've been overseas to see how players in Europe are developed, so I know what the rest of the world has done to close the gap in recent years.

I also know that the U.S. is 26-0 in the FIBA Americas Championship, which is in this country for the first time in 15 years - when Magic, Michael, Larry and the rest of the original (only) Dream Team defined dominance for the modern era in basketball and inspired the rest of the world to get better.

The last time the U.S. was in the Tournament of the Americas was in 2003, when it went 10-0 and only one game was decided by less than 16 points - an eight point victory over an Argentine team that it beat by 33 in the championship game. That squad was coached by Larry Brown and featured Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen, Elton Brand and Mike Bibby, among others.

Only Iverson and Duncan returned for the 2004 Olympics as the others were injured or found lame excuses to back out. Kidd remembers that 2003 team and knows exactly what would've happened had that same team assembled in Athens. "We would've won the gold," Kidd said.

I won't argue with Kidd. That team was stacked. The 2004 team, which had no point guards outside of Stephon Marbury, and no perimeter shooters worth mentioning, was not.

I'm of the belief that there is no problem sending a team of all-stars to an international tournament so long as you send the best all-stars. That wasn't exactly the case in 2002, when USA Basketball sent its "C" squad to the world championships and bickered toward a sixth-place finish; or in 2004, when it sent its "B-minus" squad to the Athens Olympics and finished third.

I honestly think that the U.S. should've come away with the gold medal in the world championships last year, if not for a brilliant performance by Greece that rivaled Villanova against Georgetown in 1985. Even still, that team didn't have Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups or Michael Redd. This team does.

And, with Bryant and Kidd on this team, losing is not an option. All that you have to do is check out the intensity with which Bryant approached the all-star game last February. He jumped on his teammates for letting a 30-point lead dip into the 20s - and that game was so irrelevant that the highlight was Arenas dunking off trampolines. Kidd certainly doesn't want his 34-0 record to take a hit. His leadership, defense and court vision plugs two huge holes from past international teams that flopped.

Their presence has already ratcheted up the sense of urgency amongst members of the team. "It's the most focused I've ever seen the USA team, since I've been a part of it," said LeBron James, who has had to deal with 'LeBronze' jokes in 2004 and 2006.

I'm not saying the U.S. steamrolls the competition - it might get one or two close games. I'm also not advising you to ignore this tournament. Watch it. This might be the summer that Americans can take some pride again in the game that was invented on this soil.

"Our confidence is sky high and we feel like we can't be beat," Carmelo Anthony said. "We just have to go out there and prove it."

By Michael Lee  |  August 22, 2007; 7:15 AM ET
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