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Coach K hopes he's reliving the Dream

LAS VEGAS -- Nobody calls it the Dream Team anymore. We know better. So does Mike Krzyzewski.

Dream Teams win things. They don't need MapQuest to find the top step of the medal stand. They don't go bronze, bronze, zilch in the last Olympics and two FIBA World Championships. And they don't wonder whether the rest of the world has passed them by.

That's why Krzyzewski was here working the sideline Wednesday evening as his Team USA defeated Venezuela 112-69 in the opener of the FIBA Americas Championship. Krzyzewski was hired to make things right, to return the USA to what national team managing director Jerry Colangelo says is "our rightful spot on top of the heap in basketball."

Rightful? Maybe 15 years ago, when the original Dream Team won its opening game at the 1992 Summer Games by 68 points and the gold-medal game by 32. Krzyzewski was an assistant on Chuck Daly's USA staff back then. But the truth is, Krzyzewski's wife, Mickie, could have coached the USA to Olympic gold in Barcelona that year.

Jordan. Barkley. Malone. Bird. Magic. Stockton. Etc. And a Dookie coach named Krzyzewski. My gawd, it was almost obscene to have that much talent on a single roster. There wasn't any doubt, any hand-wringing over who was going to win those games. Are you kidding? The USA romped. It was like killing a housefly with a nuclear-tipped warhead.

"That's in the past, and that was beautiful," Krzyzewski said Wednesday. "But like in music, there's one Woodstock. If you want another one, you have to go out and create something special of your own. We are the U.S. national team. What we want to be called is not a 'Dream Team.' We want to be called a 'championship team.' The other one will not happen again."

Krzyzewski witnessed the domination of that original Dream Team, just as he has witnessed the slow erosion of USA on-court dominance. There has been a coup d'etat in international basketball, with the USA being the toppled hoops dictatorship. Gold used to be a foregone conclusion. Now the USA team -- Krzyzewski's team -- has to qualify for next August's Summer Games in Beijing. This is the equivalent of Duke's having to sweat out an NCAA at-large bid.

"If we had done our job last summer, we wouldn't be here," Colangelo said.

But they are here, thanks to that third-place finish at last year's FIBA World Championship in Japan. Of course, there's more to it than that. They're here because the Dream Team concept wobbled and fell, because some of the USA players forgot to care, because the rest of the world has caught up.

That explains why Krzyzewski, who was hand-picked by Colangelo, is a regular at the Thomas & Mack Center these days. If he's not working these same sidelines Sept. 2, when the FIBA Americas final is played, that means the USA was humiliated once again. Only the top two teams automatically advance to the Olympics, so if Team USA does the unthinkable and gags, it will have to schlep overseas next spring, probably to Europe, for one last qualifying attempt.

"We've got to come home with the gold, that's all there is to it," Colangelo said.

The victory against Venezuela was a nice start, but that's all it was, a start. To win this thing, the USA needs 10 victories in 12 days, counting Wednesday night's win. That means no letdowns, no serious injuries, no forgetting how to shoot over the defense of choice in international play, the zone.

I like its chances, especially against a so-so field, especially since it's 27-0 in this tournament over the years and especially since Team USA looks like it has a point to prove.

If you're interested in the numbers, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Redd led Team USA with 17 points. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant led in floor burns and defensive intensity. He had 14 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 1 blocked shot. He was terrific.

Negatives? Nine missed free throws ... 10-for-26 from the 3-point line ... Mike Miller limping off with a tweaked knee with 1:32 left to play (he's fine). But that's nitpicking for now.

Fifteen years ago, Krzyzewski watched the Holy Trinity of Hoops (Bird, Magic, MJ) dominate the Olympics. Now he has Bryant, LeBron James and Melo, among others. Not bad -- in fact, damn good -- but nobody is scheduling a congratulatory visit to the White House just yet. They first have to win this thing and then win in Beijing.

"We're ready," said Krzyzewski, which in understated Coach K-speak means he must love his team's chances here and in Beijing. At the very least, it means he thinks Colangelo & Co. are close to fixing what was wrong with the senior national program.

Winning matters to Krzyzewski. But it seems to matter more when his three favorite colors -- red, white and blue -- are involved. After all, he is the grandson of a Polish immigrant who came to America in 1906. You should hear the pride in Krzyzewski's voice as he talks about receiving in April a framed copy of the original ship passenger manifest from Ellis Island that included his grandfather Joseph's name.

Krzyzewski himself graduated from West Point, where he played for a genius and sometime-SOB named Bob Knight. He left the Army as a captain, but the Army never left him. This coaching-for-your-country stuff is part of his basketball DNA.

This is Krzyzewski's 11th tour of coaching duty with the USA Basketball programs. So it's no surprise the guy turned into pudding when Colangelo asked him to coach this team.

"You cannot say no to this," the 60-year-old Krzyzewski said. "I don't believe in reincarnation. You're not going to come back. You're not going to come back and do this. ... I want to do this. It's service."

Service. Duty. And a total jones to respectfully kick butt.

"The biggest thing Coach K wants is to be Olympic champion," said Chris Collins, a longtime Duke assistant who is helping out during the USA practice sessions.

"This, for him, is the ultimate challenge," says Steve Wojciechowski, another Duke assistant serving in the same role here as Collins. "USA Basketball has taken some hits. I think he looks at this as a chance to do something incredibly special."

The only thing missing from Krzyzewski's head coaching résumé is an Olympic gold. He has those three national championships, 10 Final Four appearances, 775 college victories and a place in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But this is his one and only chance to lead his team to the top step of an Olympic medal stand.

Olympic coaches don't get medals. Only the athletes get those, which Krzyzewski said is the way it should be. But every so often Krzyzewski closes his eyes and visualizes Bryant, James, Anthony, Jason Kidd and Dwyane Wade standing on the top step of the victory stand in Beijing as they celebrate their Olympic championship.

"That's my gold medal," said Krzyzewski.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.