U.S. mens basketball team fails to live up to expectations

The members of the United States men’s basketball team shake hands the with those in the Chinese men’s team after beating them in Beijing in 2008. (credit: Courtesy of Kris Krug via Flickr Creative Commons) The members of the United States men’s basketball team shake hands the with those in the Chinese men’s team after beating them in Beijing in 2008. (credit: Courtesy of Kris Krug via Flickr Creative Commons)

The American basketball teams have dominated the Olympics throughout most of history. This makes a lot of sense. Men’s professional basketball is the 5th most popular sport in America, but that number becomes even more important to fielding a team when you consider that college and professional football (numbers three and one on that list) draw from the same talent pool and auto racing (number four) requires a very different build from basketball. That list is dominated by men’s sports for whatever reason, but it is likely that the popularity of women’s basketball is in a similar place when it comes to women’s sports, considering that three of the four sports above basketball do not have professional leagues for women. Further, America’s wealth of sports funding means that a large amount of that interest is turned into talent. The U.S. has the Olympic medals to show for it with the women winning seven of 10 Olympic tournaments and the men winning 14 of 18. Since its 1992 loss to the Unified Olympic Team, the Women’s team has been dominant, winning the Olympics and racking up huge margins of victory to validate their gold medals. The men, on the other hand, have made it their mission since 2000 to give every U.S. basketball fan a heart attack as they battle through international competition.

In 2000, the American men had a rough time with the Lithuanian National Team twice, despite that team not having any NBA talent or Arvydas Sabonis, the best player in Lithuanian basketball history. The first game between the two was a little more tilted towards the U.S., as they turned a six-point halftime lead into a nine-point victory, but the real scare came in the semifinal. Lithuania was up eight points going into halftime and the U.S. team struggled to play their style of basketball as they barely eked out a two-point victory. The same opponent was at it again in 2008 when a Lithuanian team now led by NBA player Linas Kleiza played the U.S. well in the preliminary rounds and the Americans finished with only a five-point victory. In the 2012 finals, the U.S. barely edged out Spain. The Americans won by seven, but they led by only one going into a closely contested fourth quarter.

In 2004, the Americans hit their low point in recent Olympic history. The U.S. had a very young team with players like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade having only played one season in the NBA. The U.S. barely made it out of their group after losing two preliminary games. One was an embarrassing 19-point loss to Puerto Rico, a team the U.S. should have beaten easily. The other one involved Lithuania finally overcoming the U.S. team’s advantage in talent to win by five. The U.S. took the first step towards righting the ship in the quarterfinals when they beat Spain by eight, though the score understated how much the Americans outplayed the Spanish team. However, the play didn’t last as the U.S. suffered an embarrassing loss to Argentina in the semifinal before beating Lithuania for the bronze medal.

It was the U.S.’s first failure to win the gold since they took bronze in 1988 and their only one since.

However, this American team is following in the footsteps of the ones before it who struggled to live up to their lofty expectations. After two big wins out of the gate against teams that were never expected to make much noise at the Olympics, the Americans were thoroughly outplayed in the first half by Australia in their third preliminary game, but played well enough in the second half to pick up a 10-point victory. Their next two games against Serbia and France finished as only three-point games and Serbian Bojan Bogdanovic missed a wide open three-point shot to send the game into overtime. This was supposed to be the best defense in U.S. Olympic history, but they’ve been playing lazy, meandering basketball on that end to this point. Even in their 27-point destruction of Argentina, after the U.S. went up in the second quarter, Argentina found plenty of open three-pointers, they just never hit any and the U.S. was able to sleepwalk its way to an impressive final score.

This U.S. team played far below expectations. Despite several players declining to play in Rio, this was supposed to be a dominant defensive team that suffocated relatively weak international opposition. Three of their five wins in the preliminary rounds were a few bad bounces away from being losses, and their lack of effort at times was embarrassing for an Olympic competition. The U.S. is still the best basketball country in the world, but the men’s team seems insistent on making everyone doubt that. If they fail to take home the gold, it will look like their grip on international basketball is slipping.