Defense must be U.S.'s gold standard

The United States, a co-favorite with Argentina in the minds of many to win the gold medal in the upcoming Olympic games, lost on Tuesday to a mediocre Italian national team, 95-78. It was the most lopsided defeat suffered in international basketball competition for the U.S. since it added NBA players to its roster in 1992.

The outcome of the game was seldom in doubt after the opening minutes of play. The U.S. led 8-7 with 4:43 remaining in the first period. It was the last time it was ahead in the game.

The U.S. struggled at both ends of the floor. On offense, it had problems solving Italy's zone defense, which jammed the middle and forced 23 turnovers. Defensively, the U.S. had trouble handling high pick-and-roll plays near the top of the circle and straight-line penetrations to the hoop, and it failed to cover closely shooters coming off baseline screens.

Italy played a typical international style. It penetrated, spaced the floor with accurate 3-point shooters, passed the ball well (23 assists against only 10 turnovers). The Italians ended up knocking down 15 of 35 attempts from beyond the arc. Shooting guard Gianluca Basile (25 points) and 6-foot-11 forward Giacomo Galanda (28 points) were a combined 12-for-23 in 3-point shooting. The U.S. made only 4 of its 13 attempts from that distance.

The U.S. shot 53.7 percent from the field and controlled the backboards with a 37-19 advantage. But the turnovers, loose defense and poor free-throw shooting (16 for 29) allowed Italy to walk away an easy victor.

The Diagnosis
Team defense must improve dramatically for the U.S. to retain its hopes of bringing home the gold. The game with Italy was reminiscent of the inept defense played by the U.S. in the debacle at the World Championships in Indianapolis two years ago. International teams are excellent screeners, ballhandlers and shooters. The Americans must defend aggressively and effectively.

Against Italy, U.S. defenders "blitzed" (double-teamed) the guard with the ball on two-man plays at the top of the circle. But the pressure was not sufficient to keep the guard, often Gianmarco Pozzecco, from looping out and finding open teammates. Then, when the blitz proved unsuccessful, the U.S. became inconsistent in defending the play. Open shots were everywhere.

Against single- and double-baseline screens, Team USA defenders loosely trailed Italy's top guns and allowed them to catch and shoot unmolested. The "lock and trail" technique -- in which the defender keeps body-to-body with the offensive player -- must be applied. Every dribble, pass and catch of the ball must be challenged, so that turnovers and low-percentage shots are forced. The U.S. should dominate the backboards in Olympic competition.

The Americans also need an up-tempo, fast-breaking offensive game to win in Athens. No team can match their athleticism. Aggressive defense and strong board work will get that game on track.

In halfcourt offense, coach Larry Brown and his staff must devise an attack to handle packed-in zone defenses more effectively. Against Puerto Rico's zone in Saturday's 96-71 win, the U.S. was able to flash its bigs into the open lane area for high-percentage shots or passes to open teammates under the hoop.

Italy played its zone differently. It matched up with the big men (especially Tim Duncan), so these players were always guarded when they came into the lane area. If defenders jam the lane like that, the ball must be swung to the weak side, where open shots await and seams in the zone can then be exploited by penetrations. The 3-point shot is a significant weapon in international basketball. American players must be made to feel free to shoot it when the shot is there.

The Cure
There's nothing like a loss -- a humiliating, embarrassing loss -- to bring players back to the reality of what it takes to win ... to learn again that teams only win with intense, unified play.

This is no easy task. International basketball is different from the game NBA players have become accustomed to playing. The floor dimensions are different with a trapezoidal-shaped lane and a shorter 3-point shot, and there are a 30-second shot clock, different penalty-foul requirements, timeout procedures and methods of substituting. Even the ball is different, and game officials will call infractions, like traveling, more closely.

It's up to the players to make the necessary adjustments. Many of the U.S. players have no international game experience. The team has been together for a little more than a week, and there's a game against Germany on Wednesday.

But this is where coach Brown and his staff will do their best work. They have the players' attention now (nobody likes losing), and the opportunity to focus on all the aspects of the international game couldn't be better. Before Olympic competition begins for this team, I expect the careless turnovers to disappear, the defense to become highly intense and effective, and the offense satiny smooth and productive. Let the work begin.

Coach Brown and his staff may then look back on the defeat by Italy as the catalyst that brought this Olympic championship team together.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.