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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Green and golden? Australia men’s hoop team eyeing Rio gold

In this Aug. 8 file photo, Australia team members celebrate after their 95-80 victory over Serbia. The Boomers, as they are affectionately known at home, have been one of the best teams at the Rio Games and could win their first medal inside the five rings. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
By Tom Withers Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO – There’s one team that has lived up to high expectations – even surpassed them – at the Rio Games in men’s basketball.

It’s the one with a roster loaded with skilled and experienced NBA players, an overall No. 1 draft pick, a backcourt featuring two guards with championship rings and a strong belief it can capture gold in Brazil.

The favored U.S. team, to this point unbeaten but shockingly underwhelming, shad better be careful.

Australia just might win it all.

Bonded by a deep commitment to the national team and each other, the Aussies have been the most impressive team in this tournament, which many expected to be dominated by Team USA’s super-squad trying to win a third straight title. However, Australia, seeking its first Olympic medal with a program aided by players developing their games on college teams in the U.S., is focused on ending America’s run.

“No disrespect to the U.S., but we don’t want to go into an Olympics aiming for second or fourth,” center Andrew Bogut said after the Aussies put a fright into the Americans in group play before losing 98-88. “We have a goal of being first.”

In some hoop circles, Australia’s performance has been a surprise. Not to the Americans.

“They play aggressive,” said U.S. forward DeMar DeRozan. “They execute extremely well, and that’s a team that’s been playing together for a while.”

International basketball observers have seen this Australian ascension coming.

With Bogut, the 7-footer selected first by Milwaukee in the 2005 draft and four other players currently on NBA rosters, the Aussies, as fans in the U.S. have learned, play with a street-tough tenacity. Add in that guards Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavedova, and big man Aron Baynes have won league titles, and it’s no wonder the team from Down Under is on the way up.

“It’s been rising for a while,” said Australian assistant coach Luc Longley, who played on three Olympic teams and won three championships with the Chicago Bulls. “I don’t think this is a flash in the pan.”

It shouldn’t be. Australia, which has finished fourth three times and will play Lithuania in Wednesday’s first quarterfinal, has depth. Missing from the 2016 Rio team are forward Ben Simmons, the former LSU star picked first in this year’s draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, and Thon Maker, selected No. 10 by the Bucks. Also, Utah’s Dante Exum was unable to play while recovering from a torn ACL suffered with the national team last summer.

Three-time Olympian Joe Ingles, who has spent the past two seasons with the Jazz, sees bright days ahead for Australia.

“We’re not all 18 years old anymore, but we’ve been together a long time and obviously with Ben and Thon and Dante and all these kids coming through. Delly’s still young, we’ve still got a pretty young group – apart from David,” the forward said, referring to 36-year-old center David Andersen. “But the rest of us are all 28 and under. I think we can sustain it for a little while, and the junior development of what we have in Australia is really good and we can continue to produce good players.”

There’s something else about the Boomers, as they’re known back home. They are a close-knit group, which grew tighter last year when Mills organized a team trip to Uluru, the iconic rock formation in central Australia considered sacred by the indigenous Aboriginals.

The experience was life-changing for Mills, who has Aboriginal roots. He said the time spent together helped the Aussies better appreciate what it means to play for their homeland.

“Just to get to know everyone on the team and the meaning behind doing that was to find that deeper meaning of why we play for Australia and why we represent our country,” said Mills, who has been with the San Antonio Spurs since 2011. “I think everyone found that individually and as a team as well.”

As a reminder, the Australian team has a banner from its trip to Uluru hanging in the athlete’s village in Rio.

To five-time Australian Olympic guard Andrew Gaze, the possibility of the Aussies stepping up onto the medal podium in the next few days, isn’t all that surprising. Gaze has been impressed with this Australian group’s resolve and its ability to crystallize in a short period.

The flag bearer for his country at the 2000 Games, Gaze, who remains the second-leading scorer in Olympic history, was a win from a bronze in 1988 but ran into a U.S. team smarting from a loss to the Soviet Union.

The Aussies came up short again eight years later in Atlanta, losing to Lithuania, which beat them again at Sydney.

“We’ve been knocking on the door for a long, long time,” Gaze said.

If the green-and-gold can get to the gold-medal game, the U.S. could be waiting.

“We’re not intimidated,” Ingles said following the teams’ matchup in the preliminary round. “We’re not scared of anyone. We hope we can get another crack at them.”