- The USA Men’s Basketball Team lost to Nigeria on Saturday 90-87 in what was supposed to have been an Olympic ‘tune up’ game.
- It is only the third time the USA Men’s Basketball Team has lost an exhibition since professionals began playing in 1992.
- Team USA was a -30 point favorite in the game, making it one of the biggest upsets relative to the pointspread in sports betting history.
The 1992 Olympics brought about a change in how men’s basketball teams were comprised. For the first time, professionals were allowed to compete for their country. Of course this was just a bit of semantics–Eastern European countries had for years used professionals in everything but name, not only basketball but in all other sports. There was no longer any subterfuge starting in 1992 and thus everyone expected that a team comprised of US professionals would dominate the rest of the world in basketball.
That view couldn’t have been more correct. The 1992 US Men’s Basketball team was called the “Dream Team” and is very likely the best team every put together in *any* sport. How good was the ‘Dream Team’? Good enough that Clyde Drexler came off the bench. Karl Malone split time with Charles Barkley. They defeated their opponents at the Olympics by an average of 44 points per game up until the Gold Medal game against Croatia. They won that game by a mere 32 points. In the process, they scored more than 100 points per game for the first time in history averaging 117.3 PPG. They were good enough to be compared to Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison:
…..when the Dream Team finally released all that star power in a collective effort, the show was better than everyone had thought it would be … and everyone had thought it would be pretty damn good. The Dreamers were Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the Allman Brothers at the Fillmore East, Santana at Woodstock.
It’s been all downhill ever since. The narrative is that the rest of the world is ‘catching up to the US’ in terms of basketball talent and there is some truth to that. There’s also the belief that other countries are ‘better at playing as a team’ than the ad hoc collection of US pros. There’s probably some truth to that as well. The biggest factor, however, is likely competitive drive. Back in 1992–and despite his brutally talented teammates–Michael Jordan actually watched game tape to find the weaknesses of opponents.
Since then, the US has continued to win Gold Medals– six of the last seven, with the only loss coming in 2004 when Argentina won gold and the US settled for bronze. They’ve held their own in exhibitions as well going 54-2 up until Saturday night when they lost 90-87 to Nigeria. In 2012, the US beat Nigeria by 83 points at the London Olympics. Five years ago, they beat them by 43 points in an exhibition game. On Saturday, the US thought they could just show up and win. The fact that the game was played in Las Vegas no doubt added to the ‘distraction’ of the American side.
US head coach Gregg Popovich said all the right things:
“In a way I’m kind of glad it happened. It means nothing if we don’t learn from it. It could be the most important thing in this tournament for us. To learn lessons from this.”
“I don’t think anyone should act, nor will we act, like this is the end of the world. It’s about everyone else deserves a lot of credit, and we have to play our ass off to do this.”
Jayson Tatum offered this excuse:
“None of us have ever played with each other, we’re just trying to figure it out. We don’t have three to four weeks. This is good for us, we’ll learn a lot from the film and we’ll regroup.”
The game doesn’t mean much except for its status as arguably the biggest pointspread upset in the history of basketball. The US was favored by 30.5 heading into the game and lost outright. There isn’t a good source of historical data for international exhibitions so the best ‘apples to apples’ comparison is probably to college basketball. On November 26, 2019, Duke was upset by Stephen F. Austin as -27.5 or -28.5 point favorites. Since 2003, never has a college hoops favorite of more than -27.5 points (the ‘official’ closing line in the database I’m using) lost a game outright. College basketball teams favored by -28 points or more are 529-0 SU. Against the spread, teams in this price range are 241-281-7 or 45.5%.
The US team plays another exhibition on Monday night against Australia in which the US is favored by only -15. Keep an eye on this game–if Team USA struggles that could bode very poorly for their performance at the Tokyo Olympics.