ATHENS, Greece (AP) - The American hoopsters aren't the only ones struggling at the Olympics. The defending world champions from Serbia-Montenegro
have lost two of their three games, Yao Ming's teammates on China are having trouble getting the ball past midcourt, and Angola's losing streak is at
eight years and counting.
So take heart, Larry Brown. You are not the sole face of frustration at an Olympic tournament that's shaping up as the sport's most compelling since
the 1988 Games. Serbia-Montenegro's losses came in the final seconds to New Zealand and Argentina. The team sure could use NBA star Peja Stojakovic,
who decided against coming to the Athens Games.
"They've got their own worries, we've got ours," New Zealand's Sean Marks said after his team beat Serbia-Montenegro 90-87.
While folks in America have been fretting over their team's failure against Puerto Rico and difficulties against Greece and Australia, the
basketball-crazy brigades in Belgrade and Beijing have been scratching their heads over their home nations' shortcomings. Both Serbia-Montenegro and
China are 1-2 in the more difficult Group B, and both are in danger of failing to make it out of the preliminary round. Only a last-second miss by
Italy has kept Serbia-Montenegro from being 0-3.
"Nothing has happened with the world champions. It's just that we lost two games by a point," said Serbia-Montenegro forward Dejan Bodiroga, widely
considered the best pro player in Europe. "Now we turn to further games, and we will fight until the end."
Serbia-Montenegro's next game is Saturday against Spain, which is undefeated, like Lithuania. But while Lithuania had two closer-than-expected
victories over Angola and Puerto Rico, Pau Gasol and his mates from Madrid have knocked off each of their opponents impressively, defeating China by
25, Argentina by 11 and Italy by eight.
"We played against the team that proved to be the best so far in our group," Italy coach Carlo Recalcati said.
Spain coach Mario Pesquera cautioned that his team wasn't necessarily the best, despite its strong start.
"Maybe we've been able to prove so far we are a little above them," he said, "but I don't think this is anything definitive."
The top four teams from each group advance to the quarterfinals, and ties involving more than two teams are broken based upon point differential in
the games between them.
For the United States, that's what makes their 19-point loss to Puerto Rico potentially problematic. If the Americans lose to Lithuania on Saturday
and defeat Angola on Monday, they could end up in a three-way tie for second place in Group A with Puerto Rico and Greece or Australia. Since the
Greeks defeated Australia by 22, and the Americans beat Greece by just six and Australia by 10, the math could work against them and drop them to
fourth place in Group A - which would mean a quarterfinal matchup with the top team from Group B.
The United States also could finish third in Group A even if it defeats Lithuania because of the point-differential formula in the event of a
three-way tie between America, Lithuania and Puerto Rico. Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and their teammates could make that moot by beating Lithuania by a
big margin, but that doesn't appear to be realistic given their struggles so far. Lithuania nearly beat the Americans four years ago in the semifinals
in Sydney, and the player whose last-second 3-pointer would have won that game, Sarunas Jasikevicius, will finally have a chance to avenge the defeat
that has become his career-defining moment.
"This is today, and that's what we worry about. That was the past," teammate Darius Songaila said. "With every game we've been playing better and
better, and I hope we can keep this up."
One Group B team that can lock up a quarterfinal berth Saturday is Argentina, which played its best game of the tournament Thursday night with a
dominating 82-57 victory over China. Using a full-court press in which three defenders denied the inbounds pass to China's two overmatched guards, the
Argentines repeatedly prevented the ball from crossing midcourt, where Yao could get his hands on it. The 7-foot-6 center was again visibly angry at
his teammates' ineptitude, and coach Del Harris was a picture of depression and resignation after the lopsided loss.
"Coming in here, I really thought we'd be a lot better," he said.
At least Harris has plenty of company. Brown, Bodiroga and others thought the same thing, too.