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LONDON (Reuters) - Andrew Gaze spent much of his playing career wondering how any nation would ever get close to the United States, the usual pick for Olympic gold whose "Dream Team" aura has faded says the Australian.
Gaze, 47, was spared the likely embarrassment of an encounter against the star-studded U.S. side at the 1992 Barcelona Games but got a taste at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Working as a commentator in 2012, Gaze told Reuters in the Olympic Park it was great to see the gap had been breached.
"Right now the U.S. have an advantage but it's unlike it was in 1992. It's conceivable they could be beaten. It was inconceivable then," said the 2.01 metre former guard, having just hopped off a bus where he dominated the back row.
"They were pretty much unbeatable in 1996. For me, it was the first opportunity to play against that calibre of competition," said the former Melbourne Tigers, Washington and San Antonio Spurs player who made five Olympic squads from 1984.
"I actually thought it would have taken a bit longer for the rest of the world to catch up but you saw what happened in 2004 and what happened in the world championships in Japan."
The United States men's team, who have won 13 Olympic gold medals in the 16 tournaments they have played in, only managed bronze at the Athens Games eight years ago and were stunned by Greece in 2006 as Spain went on to win.
Gaze still rated the LeBron James and Kobe Bryant-led U.S. as favourites after their opening 98-71 romp over France but did not buy into the talk that Spain are almost assured a spot in the final.
"On their given day some teams could beat Spain, you only have to look at the legitimate contest they were in against China. I don't think there's a huge gap between them and the rest of the field."
Spain prevailed 97-81 against China on Sunday while other contenders Brazil beat Australia by four points and Argentina downed Lithuania 102-79. Russia saw off hosts Britain 95-75.
"Who's my tip? It's likely Spain will get there with all the talent they have but Brazil, Argentina, Russia or Australia, on a one-off game anything can happen.
"When you have referees from all over the world, who put a different emphasis on how the game should be officiated, all these things come into it."
Gaze was speaking in a more nationalistic manner when he mentioned Australia as possible medallists, describing their most likely route to the latter stages as that of "underdogs."
"It's hard to judge with them because they spend such precious little time together. They only played four games together leading into this tournament.
"They come from all parts of the world now. It's more difficult for them than for the Opals," he said in reference to Australia's reigning silver medallist women's team, who also came second in 2004 and 2000.
"It's an accumulation of four years hard work to get that real hard core preparation which is just not possible with our men anymore.
"It's a lot different to when I was coming through in the 80s and 90s when virtually all of our players were in Australia, so we spent a lot of time together and built up a good understanding with our teammates.
"Now we've got three players who played in Australia last year, the rest of the guys come from around the world.
"It's great for the game and for them but it does present some problems here trying to put a team together."
Australia's men, the Boomers, have never won an Olympic medal but there is good new blood coming through, the under-17 side won silver at the world championships earlier this month.
Editing by Frank Pingue