The Dream Team's aura is a distant memory as other nations start to believe in themselves When 17-year-old Chinese point guard Chen Jianghua casually worked his way through the US defence last week in Guangzhou, it confirmed two things the basketball world had been suspecting. First, this kid has got game. It was his first match-up against a senior team of any kind and he used a devastating crossover to leave NBA superstars Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul flapping at empty air. Second, and more important in the greater scale of things, Chen showed that when it comes to 'smaller' basketballing nations facing the might of the US these days, consider the fear factor dead and buried. 'There's no doubt the aura [about playing the US] has gone,' said two-time NBA championship-winning coach, and current Team USA staff member, Rudy Tomjanovich, who was courtside in Guangzhou. 'There was a time when we knew if teams came up against us, they would be wary and we could seize on that. But not anymore. 'With all the international players in the NBA now, and with the fact that result have not exactly gone our way in recent years, they have no fear. There is no aura when they take the court against the US.' Chen and his teammates were a case in point. They may have been beaten but they were never bowed, despite what the 119-73 scoreline might suggest. They had no Yao Ming, no Wang Zhizhi, a front court of teenagers and still they took it up to the Americans. And with the World Championship starting in Japan today, you can bet that coaches all over the world were watching with interest. The very next night in Guangzhou, the Americans struggled to get past a very physical Brazil - winning 90-86 after some helpful calls. And afterwards you could see the glint in the South Americans' eyes. 'We know we have to play physical, not take a step back,' said Brazil's Leandro Barbosa, who plies his trade for the Phoenix Suns. 'If you do that, anything can happen.' From China, it was off to Korea for the US, where they made light work of the host nation and Lithuania before heading to Japan. Those results put them 5-0 in World Championship warm-ups. And with a squad committed to the US team right up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they are the deserving short-priced favourites to regain a crown that hasn't been theirs since 1994. Back in those days, the thought of a US team packed with NBA stars not winning - any time - was laughable. Once the professionals had been allowed back on to the international scene, it was widely considered that the game was over. The original Dream Team of multi-millionaires - led by Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson - waltzed away with gold at the 1992 Olympics. They won the World Championship in 1994 and gold again at the Olympics in 1996. But that's when the dream started to fade. NBA strike-affected bronze at the 1998 Worlds showed the first cracks, then a few hiccups on the way to Olympic gold in Sydney 2000 let people know these guys were actually human. And they have been totally human ever since. The Worlds in Indianapolis in 2002 saw them looking for excuses as they struggled into sixth. The Olympics in Athens 2004 saw them turn on each other - and finish third. 'We knew what we had to do,' said Suns' chief executive Jerry Colangelo, who was brought in by USA Basketball to act as the team's managing director after Athens. 'We had to get this [national] programme right and re-establish this country as the dominant force in the world.' This time around the Americans have plenty of marquee players - LeBron James and Wade - but common thinking is that much will rest of the shoulders of the Denver Nuggets' pure shooting forward Carmelo Anthony, due to his consistency and work ethic. They have also chosen to go without an out-and-out centre - Elton Brand, Brad Miller and even 20-year-old Dwight Howard sharing the load. And that will give other nations a look-in. And they will at some stage face teams loaded with NBA All-Star calibre talent of their own. Reigning Olympic champions Argentina will be led by San Antonio's mercurial Manu Ginobili; France have the Suns' power forward Boris Diaw; Spain boast Memphis Grizzlies' centre Pau Gasol; and Germany have the talents of Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki, who was virtually unstoppable during the NBA finals. As for the Chinese, Yao is back after a broken foot and will shoulder much of their hopes, along with Wang - back from international exile and hoping still to find an NBA contract after time with Dallas, the LA Clippers and Miami - and another up-and-comer in 19-year-old centre Yi Jianlian. The Americans open play in one of the championship's weaker groups, but come the knockout stages, anything could happen. 'We know that every game we play, teams will come right at us,' said US coach Mike Krzyzewski. 'We have to be ready for it.' Because these days the rest of the world is ready for the US.