Team USA resumes quest to end its bronze age

LAS VEGAS -- When we last saw Team USA, Michael Redd was bricking free throws in a H-O-R-S-E game shortly after LeBron James jumped into the arms of young Knicks fans, fueling speculation that he's Big Apple-bound sometime down the road, as Team USA's one-day media blitz brought the players to a temporary basketball court erected atop the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink in New York City.

They later took questions at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, with Jason Kidd acting so confident that he even chimed in with a scouting report on little-known Pablo Prigioni, the starting point guard for Argentina, and Chris Bosh admitting that the Americans "panicked" against Greece two years ago in Japan.

They were equal parts wary and confident, a split-yet-evolving personality that showed not only how some of them have matured, but also how they've come to grips with who they are and where they stand in the global basketball equation.

Yes, they're the favorites.

No, they don't expect to be crowned Dream Team 2.0 without having earned it.

It's been three weeks since that day in New York, and Team USA is finally back together for a four-day U.S.-based portion of training camp in Sin City prior to its first exhibition game, Friday night against Canada (8 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com).

It would be a sin, in the minds of many Americans, for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team to return home from Beijing on Aug. 25 with anything less than the gold medal.

Expectations in the homeland during an eight-year gold-medal drought have not been totally, truly tempered by American failures at the past three major international tournaments: the 2006 World Championship (bronze medal), the 2004 Athens Olympics (bronze medal) and the 2002 World Championship (sixth place), which will keep the pressure on these guys at a zenith throughout the Olympics.

The bar is set pretty high when anything other than gold is unacceptable, but that's the deal for the 2008 version of Team USA -- and the players know it.

The United States has been installed by many international oddsmakers as a 1-3 favorite to win in Beijing, but as anyone who has followed the evolution of the sport over the past decade realizes, there are no longer any sure things in international basketball.

And so while gold is the quest and the expectation, it is not a lock.

That's not a prediction, it's simply reality.

Spain is the defending world champion. The Spanish have size (Pau and Marc Gasol, Jorge Garbajosa), talent at both backcourt positions (Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro), role players who can play inside and outside (Rudy Fernandez), and a teenage backup point guard (Ricky Rubio) who has already drawn comparisons to Pistol Pete Maravich.

Argentina is the defending Olympic champion, led by the NBA's reigning sixth man, Manu Ginobili, and is the only nation to have defeated the United States twice (2002 Worlds, 2004 Olympics).

Russia is the standing European champion, with a tall and long front line that includes Andrei Kirilenko and former NBA players Viktor Khryapa and Nikita Morgunov, not to mention an American point guard (J.R. Holden) and an American coach (David Blatt).

Lithuania is always tough, and Greece just rolled into the Olympics in the last-chance qualifier tournament and was then placed with Germany (led by Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman) in the U.S. team's preliminary-round Olympic group. (The third team to qualify, Croatia, was drawn into Group A with Argentina, Lithuania, Russia, Iran and Australia.)

"Well, it's a tough group," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said following the team's inaugural practice Monday. "For us, I think what's really good is we play China first, which gives us a flavor of the Olympics and what nationalism's all about, then Angola.

"But after that, through the rest of the tournament, we're going to play teams that are more conventional, and we don't have any interruptions. There won't be a lull like there was in the World Championship, where the pool play I don't think got you ready for medal play. Our pool play will get us ready for medal play. The more competition we have, the better we'll be. And again, at the very end, it's what you do in medal play.

"I've learned a lot over the last three years, and one thing is: Let's play as many good teams as possible to get us ready for medal play."

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics.