By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – You only need three letters to sum up Olympic basketball – “USA”.
If any gold medals are virtual slam dunks at the Tokyo Games it will be the U.S. taking top spot on the podium in the men’s and women’s hoops.
The U.S. women have dominated the Olympic hardwood in a way few other teams in any sport at the Games ever have.
They have swept the last six gold medals and at the 2016 Rio Games underscored that dominance, going unbeaten and thumping the opposition by an average margin of 37.2 points per game.
Since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opened the door to NBA players at the 1992 Barcelona Games, U.S. “Dream Teams” have won six of seven golds, the only blip being a bronze at Athens 2004 after a shock semi-final loss to Argentina.
With a 138-5 record, there have been few threats to the U.S. dynasty. Only three other teams have stood atop the men’s podium and of that trio – the Soviet Union (2), Argentina (1) and Yugoslavia (1) – two are no longer even countries.
Since joining the Olympic programme in 1936, the U.S. men have won gold 15 times, next on the list is the former-Soviet Union with two.
While every nation competing in Tokyo will likely draw from the NBA talent pool, no other country can match the depth of talent available to the United States.
Even without all-stars like Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James, who has decided to sit these Games out, the U.S. will still be the team to beat, selecting a 12-man roster from a finalist group of 57 NBA players including 16 former Olympians.
“Having a larger player pool than what we normally have is critical because of all of the uncertainties we face about availability,” said Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the USA Basketball men’s national team.
While the U.S. head to Tokyo with the usual swagger, there have been warning signs that these Olympics could be bumpier for them following a seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, their worst result in a major international competition.
France, who defeated the U.S. in the quarter-finals, again look to be trouble with a lineup led by NBA three-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.
World Cup champions Spain, regularly among the medal contenders, having taken silver in 2008 and 2012 and bronze in 2016, should again be in the hunt along with Argentina, Australia and Serbia.
There is no sign of any threat to the U.S. women’s reign.
The squad will be a mix of experience and youth led by guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi who will compete in their fifth Olympics.
Joining them will be six first-time Olympians, including A’ja Wilson the WNBA’s most valuable player in 2020.
If there is a challenge waiting for the U.S. in Tokyo it could come from second-ranked Australia.
Until Rio the Opals had claimed a medal from every Games going back to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, including three consecutive silvers (2000, 2004, 2008) after losing in the finals to the Americans each time.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)