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US gets favorable draw for Olympics

Team USA didn't quite strike gold Saturday, but it learned that the road to the Olympic gold medal game won't be quite as difficult as it could have been.

The draw for the Olympic men's basketball tournament took place in Beijing on Saturday, and the United States was placed in what should turn out to be the weaker of the two groups -- although two of the opponents remain unknown pending the outcome of a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament to be held in July.

Of the five top teams in the world, three -- Argentina, Russia and Lithuania -- were placed in Group A.

In Group B with the United States are Spain, China, Angola and two teams that will emerge from the pre-Olympic qualifier in Athens, where Greece will be the favorite.
A third team from that pre-Olympic qualifier will be placed in Group A along with Argentina, Russia, Lithuania, Australia and Iran.

Four teams advance from each group to the quarterfinals. If the Americans win Group B, they would face the fourth-place team from Group A in the quarterfinals, and the second-place team from Group A or the third-place team from Group B in the semifinals.

Or to put it a little more speculatively: If Argentina, the defending Olympic champion, wins Group A and Team USA wins Group B, the teams could not meet until the final day of the competition.

"Our pool might be considered easier, but I don't know that for a fact," Team USA director Jerry Colangelo told ESPN.com. "And with the way the crossover works out, sometimes it makes for a more difficult matchup in the quarterfinals or semifinals.

"To me, this isn't really going to be about who we're playing, but about us staying on course with our mission, and we're going to respect every single team we play."

FIBA also announced two major rules changes that will go into effect after the 2010 World Championship in Turkey:

• The shape of the lane will be changed from a trapezoid to a rectangle, conforming to NBA dimensions.

• The 3-point line will be moved a half-meter farther from the basket, from 20 feet, six inches to just over 22 feet -- still well short of the NBA distance of 23 feet, nine inches.

FIBA also approved a change allowing a technical foul to be assessed for excessive swinging of the elbows, even if a player does not make contact with another player. That rule will go into effect as of Oct. 1, 2008.

The Olympic draw was conducted at the Olympic basketball venue, the Wukesong Indoor Stadium, coinciding with a meeting of FIBA's central board.

"The word I'm getting from China is that they're extremely excited that we're going to open against them, and maybe it's apropos that we're playing them first," Colangelo said.

The Americans will play pre-Olympic exhibitions against three teams from Group A, Russia, Lithuania and Australia, before opening the Olympics on Aug. 10 against China.

Two nights later Team USA plays Angola, and on Aug. 16 the Americans will play one of the teams that will emerge from the pre-Olympic qualifier, where Greece, Slovenia, Brazil, Germany, Croatia, New Zealand, Canada and Puerto Rico will be the top contending teams.

The identity of that team -- as well as the Americans' final first-round opponent -- will not be known until a draw is held in Athens on July 21. (The results of the pre-Olympic tournament will have no bearing on the draw).

For now, what shapes up as the Americans' toughest first-round game, is the Aug. 18 match against Spain, which defeated the U.S. at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis and lost a closely contested quarterfinal match against Team USA at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. (The teams did not face each other at the 2006 World Championship in Japan, in which Spain defeated Greece for the gold medal).

Spain's roster expected to include NBA players Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro, along with NBA prospects Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez. There also is a possibility, according to reports in the Spanish media, that teenage point guard phenom Ricky Rubio will be competing in training camp with Portland's Sergio Rodriguez for the backup point guard spot.

Saturday's draw also made it extremely unlikely there will be what would have been a politically-charged game between the US and Iran, because there is little chance of Iran finishing higher than fifth in Group A.

The 12-man U.S. roster will be chosen June 30 following a four-day mini-camp in Las Vegas.

The team will then open pre-Olympic training in Las Vegas on July 19 and play an exhibition against Canada on July 25 before departing for pre-Olympic stops in Macao and Shanghai. There were preliminary talks regarding an additional exhibition game in Taiwan, but that possibility has been scrapped.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.