Pressure on Team USA at Tournament of the Americas

Updated: August 20, 2003, 10:37 AM ET

By Chris Bernucca SportsTicker Pro Basketball Editor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Will Team USA party like it's 1999? Or will it be deja vu 2002?

Those are the questions hanging over the heads of Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and the rest of the NBA stars representing the United States as they prepare for the FIBA Tournament of the Americas, which begins in this sun-washed city Wednesday at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

Four years ago, the U.S. found itself in a similar situation, needing to qualify for the Olympics in a tournament on this island. Guided by Larry Brown - an assistant pressed into duty when Rudy Tomjanovich took ill - Team USA romped to 10 wins without a loss, then went on to win the gold medal in the 2000 Olympics.

This time, Brown is running the show, which played to embarrassing reviews in last year's World Championships in Indianapolis. For the first time since USA Basketball began using NBA stars in international competition in 1992, an American team lost.

In fact, Team USA lost three times as its 58-game winning streak with NBA players came to a crashing halt. The Americans finished sixth and now need a medal showing here to simply qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

That should not be a problem as this tournament does not include any of the European powers such as Yugoslavia, Lithuania or Germany. But for a country which claims the game as its own, the U.S. needs to re-assert itself as the world's undisputed basketball power.

After a week of practice, Team USA took a small step toward that goal with Sunday's 101-74 trouncing of Puerto Rico, a likely second-round foe in this tournament. However, the U.S. players were not impressed with themselves.

"There are some teams better than Puerto Rico," swingman Vince Carter said.

"We didn't play that well," forward-center Jermaine O'Neal said. "We ended up giving up a lot of points in transition and we can't get out to our transition offense."

Brown was happy with Team USA's performance in the second half, when it held Puerto Rico to just 26 points. However, Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro was totally overwhelmed.

"You have to do a lot of things against them," Toro said. "You have to match up, you have to zone, you have to (play) man-to-man. We have to give them a different look all the time because after one look or two looks, they will be in the flow with us and they are bigger and stronger and have a lot of knowledge of the game."

While last year's World Championship squad was made up of second-tier players, this unit is a virtual All-Star team. Duncan has won two MVP awards; Iverson has won an MVP and three scoring titles; Tracy McGrady has won a scoring title; Jason Kidd has won four assist titles; and Carter has won a Slam Dunk title.

Also on the squad are Karl Malone, who is second all time in points; All-Stars O'Neal, Ray Allen and Elton Brand; and rising star Mike Bibby. Rounding out the roster are high-flying Richard Jefferson and rookie Nick Collison.

Since the team's first practice nine days ago, Brown's major concern has been convincing this group that this tournament will not be an All-Star Game. That will be hard to do in the first round, when Team USA's stiffest competition figures to come in Wednesday's opener against Brazil.

The Brazilians are coming off a gold medal in the recently completed Pan Am Games and figure to add NBA players Nene Hilario and Leandro Barbosa to a team that includes future lottery pick Anderson Varejao.

That game begins a stretch of four in four days for the Americans. The next three opponents are the Dominican Republic, which won silver at the Pan Am Games; Venezuela, whose best player is former NBA reserve Oscar Torres; and the Virgin Islands, which features Dallas swingman Raja Bell but did not have an international team 10 years ago.

The U.S. is in Group B. Group A is much deeper with Argentina, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Uruguay.

Argentina was the team that ended Team USA's winning streak at last year's World Championships, where it lost to Yugoslavia in overtime in the gold medal game.

The Argentines feature guard Manu Ginobili, Duncan's teammate on the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs; forward Luis Scola, a Spurs draft pick about a year away from the NBA; center Ruben Wolkowyski, who played for Seattle; and center Fabricio Oberto, a wily, versatile player.

Puerto Rico features NBA players Carlos Arroyo and Daniel Santiago and figures to benefit from playing host. Canada will rely on Dallas All-Star guard Steve Nash, who can win games by himself. And Mexico boasts Dallas forward Eduardo Najera and former NBA reserve Horacio Llamas.

The top four teams in each group advance to the second round, where they face the four teams they have not played from the other group. This is where things should get a bit tougher for Team USA as it meets Argentina, Puerto Rico and Canada.

"We are going to be playing with the toughest team in North America - in the world," Toro said.

After the second round, the four teams with the best records advance to the semifinals on August 30. The semifinal winners assure themselves of Olympic berths and play for the gold medal.

The semifinal losers play for the bronze medal in the tournament's most important game. The winner gets a berth in the 2004 Olympics, while the loser gets nothing.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index