MADRID — It feels like so long ago, though it’s been only a decade.
The U.S. was the three-time defending Olympic champion, but had become a mess of a basketball program. The Americans had embarrassed themselves at home in the 2002 world championship, and when they haphazardly put together their team for the 2004 Olympics, nobody should have been surprised if they lost.
That’s exactly what happened. Puerto Rico blew them out 92-73 in their opener.
Now the Americans run perhaps the most stable program in the world, gold medalists at both the men’s and women’s, senior and junior levels. Yet Mike Krzyzewski will prepare as if their opener in Rio de Janeiro is as uncertain as the one in Athens.
“I think we can lose our next game,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, that’s the way we prepare because we know how good everyone is.”
The Americans are the best, proving that again with a 129-92 victory over Serbia on Sept. 14 to win the Basketball World Cup.
That gave the U.S. consecutive world titles to go with its back-to-back Olympic gold medals. The Americans have won with powerhouse rosters in the Olympics and beatable ones in the worlds, and they could go to Brazil with their best one yet.
LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul would be welcomed back if they want a shot at a third straight Olympic gold. Kevin Durant and Kevin Love might want to return after pulling out this summer.
And there are plenty of guys on this year’s team who showed they will earn consideration, from tournament MVP Kyrie Irving and fellow guards James Harden, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, to forwards Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried.
And don’t forget how much better Derrick Rose could be in two years after struggling during this tournament in his return after missing most of the last two seasons following two knee operations.
If nobody could beat a depleted U.S. team this summer, how could anyone touch that team in 2016? “If we come back with a lack of focus,” Curry said.
“We can’t take anything for granted. This is big-time competition, teams recharge and refuel in these two years and get ready for the Olympics. So if we — whatever group suits up and flies down to Brazil for the Olympics — if we’re not prepared with the same mentality that we had here and Istanbul and London and Beijing, we’re capable of being beaten. So we have to come with that same focus and energy that we did and keep this dominance going.”
This was supposed to be the summer where it could end. Spain had nearly beaten stronger U.S. teams in the last two Olympic gold-medal games, and this time would have home-court advantage and a roster of all the players it wanted while the Americans would settle for whoever would come.
Another matchup in the gold-medal game was widely expected until France stunned the Spaniards in the quarterfinals.
“Spain’s a magnificent program, a magnificent team, and it just takes one bad day. One bad day. And so what we’re trying to do is make sure we don’t have bad days,” Krzyzewski said. “And so far it’s worked out.”
The Americans have had only one under Krzyzewski and USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, a loss to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship, their first tournament. They have won 63 straight, counting exhibitions, and are 74-1 since Colangelo took control and revamped the program.
The U.S. always had the best possible talent, even when it was losing six times between 2002 and ’04. Now the Americans may also have the best leadership and infrastructure, and it’s made the gap with the rest of the world seem larger than ever.
There will be 11 spots open in 2016, assuming Colangelo sticks to his previous plan to save a spot for Paul George, who broke his right leg during training for this tournament.
It’s hard to envision any challenger to whatever team is picked, with Spain and Argentina getting old, and Serbia and Lithuania maybe a little young. Maybe France, which followed last year’s European title with a bronze in Madrid even without Tony Parker, could be the team if the San Antonio Spurs point guard returns.
But even after watching this team average 104.6 points and win by 33 per game, Krzyzewski will insist it’s possible.
“I think one of the reasons we’ve won is because we do have that respect. We know how good everyone is. It’s beautiful basketball,” he said. “We prepare like crazy and we learned from the international community. We get better.”
(BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer)