The U.S. men's basketball team that will be favored, but not by much, to win Olympic gold in Athens next month convenes for the first time Monday in Jacksonville, Fla., with just 20 days to practice and prepare for its opening-round game Aug. 15 against Puerto Rico.

"It's going to be pretty intense, when you see the limited number of practices we actually have," U.S. Coach Larry Brown, coach of the NBA champion Detroit Pistons, said yesterday. "One nice thing is we wanted to play against great competition and play as many games as we can comfortably get in [before the Olympics], and USA Basketball did a great job of getting us games against quality teams in tough places to play. Hopefully, that'll help."

The workouts in Jacksonville begin a hectic period for the Olympic team, the youngest the U.S. program has assembled since NBA players began participating in 1992. The team will play its first exhibition game July 31 against Puerto Rico in Jacksonville before departing for Cologne, Germany.

The U.S. team will work out there for four days, playing Italy on Aug. 3 and Germany on Aug. 4. From there, the team will travel to Belgrade to face Serbia and Montenegro on Aug. 6, and will finish its training schedule with six days in Istanbul, playing Turkey on Aug. 8 and 10, before departing for Athens on Aug. 12. The Opening Ceremonies are the following day.

Brown said his team, which does not include a player with Olympic experience, must get a feel for the caliber of Olympic competition over the next month. The U.S. team finished an embarrassing sixth at the most recent world championships, in 2002, and Brown has admitted that he is concerned that other countries, such as Lithuania and Argentina, have more time to work together with their entire rosters.

"They truly are teams, and the skill level is extremely high," Brown said. American players "better understand that right from the beginning."

-- Barry Svrluga