U.S. looks to have easy first round, but Argentina awaits

Updated: August 19, 2003, 3:09 PM ET

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Unlike four years ago, the Americans are keeping things local at the Olympic qualifying tournament.

The U.S. team settled in Tuesday at a beachfront resort just a few miles from Roberto Clemente Coliseum, where they will try to earn one of three berths available to FIBA-Americas teams at the Olympic qualifying tournament.

They open play Wednesday night against Brazil, which features forward Nene (formerly known as Nene Hilario) of the Denver Nuggets and incoming Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa. Brazil won the gold medal at the recently completed Pan American games.

There was one change to the U.S. roster Tuesday as Karl Malone withdrew because of the death of his mother and was replaced by Kenyon Martin of the New Jersey Nets. Malone will retain his spot on the 2004 team, a USA Basketball spokesman said.

"We haven't been playing with each other a lot, but the little bit of time that we've had so far, I think we've progressed a lot," Allen Iverson said.

The American team will spend 12 days together in Puerto Rico -- but hopefully not much of it on a bus. Four years ago, the U.S. team stayed at a resort about 30 miles from the city center and spent an inordinate amount of time in traffic on an island where red lights are adhered to at varying levels by drivers.

"It's kind of dangerous riding in Puerto Rico, but we're staying in San Juan this time so I don't think traffic will be quite a problem," said Brown, who joked about the ineffectiveness of the 1999 team's police escorts.

The U.S. team just completed a nine-day training camp in New York preparing for this tournament, which begins Wednesday and features 10 teams from North and South America.

In Group A with the United States are Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Group B includes Argentina, Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Uruguay.

The most important day of the tournament will be Aug. 30, when the semifinals are played and two teams earn berths to the 2004 Athens Games.

The bronze medal game the following day will determine the third qualifying team, while the gold medal game will be for pride -- especially if it matches Argentina and the United States.

Last summer, Argentina defeated the United States 87-80 -- the first loss in international competition for an American team of comprised NBA players. Most shocking was the manner in which the victory was accomplished. The United States never led, tied it only once, trailed by as many as 20 and couldn't mount a comeback down the stretch.

Argentina returns many of the same players from its 2002 team, including Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, and has replaced retired starting forward Hugo Sconochini with 6-foot-10 forward Roman Gonzalez, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer at the Pan Am games.

Ginobili said during the NBA Finals that Argentina's incoming young forwards are even better than Sconochini, who averaged 11.2 points last summer at the World Championships.

Argentina also has unheralded center Fabricio Oberto, who outscored Vlade Divac 28-3 in last summer's gold medal game at the Worlds, and energetic small forward Andres Nocioni, who threw down a vicious dunk over Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett at the 1999 qualifier when the U.S. team defeated Argentina by 31 points.

"If you look at the NBA, we've been blessed with so many great international players. And if you look around and see the tournaments we've taken part in -- just recently it was the first time we didn't medal in the Pan Am Games -- it's good for basketball," U.S. coach Larry Brown said. "Everybody all over the world is playing our sport and playing it well."

After opening against Brazil, the U.S. team will play the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the second round, the Americans will face the four teams that advance from Group B.

The Americans have never lost in an Olympic qualifier, going a combined 16-0 in 1992 and 1999. In the Olympics, the United States has a record of 109-2, including 17-0 since 1992 with professional players.

Three teams have already qualified for Athens: Serbia and Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), the defending world champion; Greece, the host country; and Angola, which defeated Nigeria 85-65 Saturday to earn the lone berth for teams from Africa.

Qualifiers from Asia, Europe and Oceania will be determined in tournaments held in September.

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