SAITAMA, Japan (AP) _ When the U.S. basketball team was assembled this year, it embarked on a three-year march to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now the road to China must go through South America.
The Americans won the bronze medal at the world championships Saturday night with a 96-81 victory over Argentina. That will be their last game until next summer when they will try to earn an Olympic berth in the FIBA Americas tournament in Venezuela. A gold medal in the worlds would have punched their Olympic ticket.
``We obviously wanted to get the automatic bid, but we didn't,'' guard Kirk Hinrich said. ``Maybe it'll be good for us. Maybe we need more time to gel as a team and we'll have more time to play.''
The U.S. has a wealth of talent and coaching acumen. But that combination isn't enough against superior teams groomed for the international game. The U.S. has failed to reach the final in each of its last three major international competitions.
As the Americans accepted their bronze medals Saturday night, many gave military salutes to the Saitama Super Arena crowd of 16,700. But they knew a strong effort against Argentina had come one day too late.
``Winning the bronze, it's not good,'' center Dwight Howard said. ``But we can't just look over it. We had to forget about what happened the other day against Greece and just come out and put our best effort forward in this game.''
Immediately after the Americans' semifinal loss to Greece, players began fielding questions about whether the U.S. would have lost with Kobe Bryant, who missed this tournament after having minor knee surgery.
The U.S. players weren't biting on that one.
``I'm not a hypothetical person,'' forward Chris Bosh said.
Bryant is expected to be available next summer. On the court, there's little doubt Bryant would help the U.S. But his presence could alter the chemistry of a team whose leadership was assumed by young captains Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
``We don't know what's going to happen next summer when other guys come up on the team, if we're still going to be captains or not,'' James said. ``But I think we did a great job of trying to get our team mentally focused to play.''
On Saturday, coach Mike Krzyzewski started all three captains together for the first time in Japan, along with Howard and Kirk Hinrich. They responded by leading the team in scoring, Wade with 32 points, James with 22 and Anthony with 15.
The new lineup may hint at changes for next summer, including James moving to point guard. He played the position for much of the Argentina game, battling former Temple star Pepe Sanchez, an elite point guard.
James finished with seven assists and three turnovers in 30 minutes.
``That's something me and coach talked about this morning at breakfast time,'' James said. ``Hopefully, we could have thought about it earlier, but it was a great adjustment by coach.''
James finished the tournament with 37 assists, second to Chris Paul (44). James said he would be open to more time at the point as the U.S. moves toward Beijing.
``I think my athleticism and my length can disrupt some of the point guards' offense,'' James said. ``In FIBA basketball, the offense on the opposing team is run very crisp, and if you could just try to knock it off a little bit, it can help us.''
Moving James to the point might not be the only change. Had the U.S. won the worlds, there would be few calls for a roster shake-up. But there figure to be some new faces after a third-place finish.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo asked players for a three-year commitment in an effort to develop a national program, as opposed to the previous practice of assembling an all-star team for each competition.
``These players have put in a lot of time and effort and they've built equity in terms of being part of this team going forward,'' Colangelo said. ``No question about that. But we also have some players who were on the national team who were not with us. But we're not throwing the baby out with the bathwater because we love all our guys.''
Other players who could be part of the mix include Phoenix's Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, Washington's Gilbert Arenas, Boston's Paul Pierce, Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Milwaukee's Michael Redd and the Los Angeles Lakers' Lamar Odom.
``I think as long as those guys come in and we're all looking forward to working with one another and everybody competes for the 12 spots, we'll continue to build,'' Bosh said. ``Everybody has to have a team mind going into next summer.''
The U.S. may need to add a shooter. The team shot 37 percent from 3-point range. That's not great, although it was 2 percentage points better than the field's average.
But offense wasn't the problem for the Americans, whose 103.5-point average led the tournament by far. The problem was inconsistent defense, as Greece showed when it shot 63 percent in the semifinal.
If the U.S. can shore up its defense, it bodes well for Beijing. But first the Americans have to take care of business in Venezuela.
``This is the start of a process,'' Krzyzewski said. ``We knew when we started that we were taking a journey, not a short trip.''
For the U.S., the world championships turned out to be one day shorter than expected. The team was originally scheduled to fly home Monday, the morning after the final.
The revised itinerary called for the Americans to be in the air Sunday _ long before Greece and Spain tipped off in the gold-medal game.