Will the beast awaken?

STEVE BUFFERY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:26 AM ET

The world's top basketball nations, as well New Zealand, Lebanon and Qatar, gather in Japan over the next two weeks to compete at the world championships.

Canada is noticeably absent from the event.

As usual, the Americans are heavy favourites to return home with the gold, even though the once dominant basketball superpowers failed to medal at the 2002 Indianapolis worlds (finishing sixth), and placed third at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Internet betting site PinnacleSports.com lists the Americans as 4-11 favourites, followed by Spain (8-1), defending Olympic champs Argentina (10-1) and Greece (16-1).

The U.S. opens the tournament today against a strong Puerto Rico side, followed by preliminary-round contests against Yao Ming and Team China, Italy, Slovenia and Senegal. The Americans should win, but gone are the days when USA Basketball would throw together 12 NBA all-stars, play largely as individuals and easily defeat the best the world had to offer.

The poor showings in Indianapolis and Athens proved that a new approach was needed and, this time around, the U.S. braintrust assembled a young, but heavily talented, squad that includes the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the Raptors' own Chris Bosh. Past mainstays such as Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal are not longer part of the program.

Under head coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University, this outfit has come together as a team. In five exhibition games leading up the worlds, the American squad buried its opponents by an average of 34 points.

"The guys understand how big this is, while back in 2004, I don't think everybody understood the importance of the Olympics," James said recently. "It's a big deal. You are fighting for your country."

The American players had to be willing to give up the next three summers -- this year's worlds, the Olympic qualifying tournament next summer if need be, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Raptors have five players competing at the worlds, including forward Jorge Garbajosa and guard Jose Calderon of Spain and Slovenian forwards Uros Slokar and Rasho Nesterovic.

Toronto forward Pape Sow originally was planning to play for Senegal, but was forced to withdraw after injuring his neck at the Las Vegas Summer League and undergoing surgery.

Another Raptor who was thinking of representing his country was 2006 first overall draft selection Andrea Bargnani. The 20-year-old Italian led his club team, Benetton Treviso, to the Lega A championship, then joined the Raptors for the Vegas Summer League. And while he impressed the Toronto brass with his skill and enthusiasm, the seven-foot forward was exhausted by the end of the tournament and decided to bow out of the worlds.

"All the news outlets talked about him not joining the national team," Raptors assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini told the Toronto Sun from his Italian home this week. "He tried to explain that the decision had nothing to do with anything but the simple fact that he was just worn out.

"Some people blamed the Raptors and I told them I don't know another team in the NBA with more players at the worlds than the Raptors. At the end of the day, the federation, the head coach, everybody, understood he reasons."

Defending Olympic champion Argentina are out to prove that its win in Athens was no fluke. A lineup that includes NBA standouts Emanuel Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs, Andres Nocioni of the Chicago Bulls and Carlos Delfino of the Detroit Pistons, Argentina is undoubtedly one of the stronger sides at the tournament.

Spain, featuring NBA all-star Pau Gasol, will also be in the hunt for medals, as could Slovenia, with five NBAers on the roster.


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