A confident US team enters the playoff rounds of the World Basketball Championship on an impressive run, but some familiar faces are blocking their path to reclaiming the global throne.
Sixteen survivors from round-robin games will play for quarter-final berths this weekend, with the unbeaten US National Basketball Association (NBA) stars on court tomorrow against Australia, led by Milwaukee Bucks forward Andrew Bogut.
"We're ready to move on to Tokyo and take care of business," US forward Elton Brand said. "I might have a matchup with Bogut, but you don't know what to expect in international play. These guys play a lot differently than the NBA."
Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki and Germany could await in the next round with Phoenix standout Boris Diaw and France as potential semi-final foes.
After a humbling sixth-place finish at the 2002 worlds and a bronze-medal showing at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Americans are taking nothing for granted. The US team's big worry so far has been improving its own performance.
"We wanted to stay sharp. It wasn't about who we were playing. It was about the US playing at a high level," US forward Shane Battier said.
"We need everyone for us to play well to win the gold," he said.
Other US bracket round-of-16 games, all set for tomorrow, find Germany playing Nigeria, France facing African champion Angola and European champion Greece taking on Asian champion China.
"Every game we get better," said China's Yao Ming, the tournament scoring leader at 28.4 points a game. "European teams have the same level. We can win the game."
Greece will offer a stingy defense second only to the US stars in steals, a unit that lost Olympic bronze on its home court at Athens two years ago. The opposite bracket features an unbeaten Spanish side led by Memphis center Pau Gasol and 2004 Olympic champion Argentina, powered by San Antonio playmaker Emanuel Ginobili and Chicago forward Andres Nocioni.
"We feel great. We beat France and Serbia, two of the top 10 teams in the world," Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. "We play great together, we play smart and we have great chemistry. All the players are happy.
"Now the World Championships begin," he said.
Argentina will open against New Zealand, with the winner to face either Slovenia or Turkey.
Two-time defending champion Serbia and Montenegro will have to subdue Spain in order to advance, with the winner to meet 2004 Olympic runner-up Italy or Lithuania.
Nowitzki ranks second in tournament scoring so far at 24.8 points a game and second in rebounds with 10.6 a contest. Gasol rates third in both points, with 21.4 a game, and blocked shots, with two a game.
Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade, who comes off the bench first to provide US stars a boost, is fourth overall, topping US point producers at 21.3 a game.
"We have to fine-tune all parts of our game," Wade said. "Offensively we have to be a little more crisp. We have to continue to have more killer mentality."
The average US win margin has been an impressive 23 points, but still below Argentina's 25 and Spain's 28.
Gone are the "Dream Team" days when Americans could overpower every team in a global event.
"I don't think there will ever be dominance. The world is too good in basketball," US coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
"For us to think we are going to dominant is very arrogant and not what we believe. We have to play at our best in order to have a chance to beat the best in the world. Our goal is to be the best we can be and hopefully that will be good enough to compete for the World Championship," he said.