BEIJING (Reuters) - Nerves of steel will be needed when the U.S. men’s basketball team face Beijing Olympic hosts China in a blockbuster opening game on Sunday.
Though an ambush of the NBA’s top talent is a far-fetched notion, a Yao Ming-led China could push the U.S. hard in what is likely to be the most-viewed sport event ever in the country.
“Playing China in the very first game, I don’t know if it gets better than that,” said American head coach Mike Krzyzewski before their Group B clash. “I hope we’re not too excited. I think it helps us prepare for the rest of the competition.”
The U.S. team are still smarting from being relegated to bronze at the 2004 Athens Games and the world championships two years ago, but believe they are better prepared this time around.
”We knew we weren’t ready for the 2004 Olympics,“ U.S. assistant coach Nate McMillan told Reuters. ”We had to make changes. In the past we’ve spent two to three weeks getting ready for the Games. This time we’ve spent three years.
“I can’t even imagine what (former Olympic coaches) Chuck Daly and Larry Brown had to go through years ago. I wouldn’t say we haven’t taken it seriously but in the past we have been able to do that and win. But other countries are better now.”
World champions Spain and reigning Olympic gold medalists Argentina are likely to be the U.S. team’s biggest rivals for the Beijing title.
Pau Gasol leads the Spanish against Greece in their Group B opener, a rematch of the 2006 world championship final while Dirk Nowitzki’s Germany face Angola in the group’s other game.
European champions Russia kick off the men’s competition against outsiders Iran in Group A with Argentina opening their title defense against Lithuania.
Australia’s hopes of advancing from Group A were given a boost when NBA centre Andrew Bogut was passed fit for his team’s game with Croatia after twisting an ankle in a warm-up game.
“I‘m fine,” he said. “I practiced yesterday for the first time in about four days and pulled up pretty well -- no swelling, pain is a minimum, so I‘m pretty good.”
Editing by Alex Richardson