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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 April, 2004, 12:18 GMT 13:18 UK
Beginner's guide to basketball
The USA team celebrate winning the gold in Sydney
The USA set the standard

Fast and furious, basketball is one of the most popular sports at the Olympics.

The United States will be red-hot favourites to successfully defend their gold medal in Athens as they call on a who's who of the best in the game.

Their domestic league, the National Basketball Association, is the best in the world. As a result, their national team has dominated previous Olympic tournaments.

The Olympic competition is seeded according to how the teams fared in the World Championships and the qualification rounds for the Games.

TOURNAMENT TEAMS
Men
Group A: Angola, Australia, Greece, Lithuania, Puerto Rico & USA
Group B: Argentina, China, Italy, New Zealand, Serbia & Montenegro & Spain
Women
Group A: Australia, Brazil, Greece, Japan, Nigeria & Russia
Group B: China, Czech Republic, South Korea, New Zealand, Spain & USA
Serbia and Montenegro won the world title last year in a tournament where the fancied Americans lost to Argentina and Yugoslavia, the number one ranked team in the world.

Both the men's and women's event consist of 12 teams split into two groups of six for the round-robin stage.

The top four teams in each group advance to the quarter-finals where the tournament turns into a straight knockout. The losing semi-finalists play off for the bronze medal.

There are slight differences between the NBA and the Olympics, where matches are played under International Basketball Federation (Fiba) rules.

The basics remain the same with two teams of five players, although they play for less time and on a smaller court.

As opposed to four 12-minute quarters in the NBA, play consists of two 20-minute halves with the game stopping whenever the referee blows his whistle to indicate a dead ball.

Fiba v NBA
Length of game
Fiba: 4 x 10 minutes
NBA: 4 x 12 minutes
Court dimensions
Fiba: 28m x 15m
NBA: 28.65m x 15.24m
Three-point line
Fiba: 6.25m
NBA: 7.24m
Number of referees
Fiba: Two
NBA: Three
Second clock
Fiba: 30 seconds
NBA: 24 seconds
Fouls permitted
Fiba: Five per player
NBA: Six per player
Timeouts allowed
Fiba: Five per game
2 in 1st half; 3 in 2nd half
NBA: Seven per game
If the game is tied at the end of regulation time then an extra five minutes 'overtime' is played.

Most baskets are worth two points, but a longer shot from behind an arced line 6.25 metres from the basket counts three.

Once a basket is scored, the ball passes to the opposition who start play out of bounds at the end of the court and pass it in-bounds.

They have 10 seconds in possession to cross the halfway line, otherwise the ball is given back to the opposition. In possession a side has 30 seconds before a shot must be made.

Basketball is supposed to be a non-contact sport and referees penalise players that bump, barge and shove an opponent.

If a player is fouled while trying to score a two-point shot, two free throws, worth a point each, are awarded. If they are attempting a three-point score, three free-throws are given.

PLAYING POSITIONS
Point guard: Leads attack
Guard Heart of the action
Centre: Defensive cover
Forward (x2): Link players
Once a team is punished for seven fouls in a half, for the rest of that half a free throw is awarded for any foul, regardless of whether the player was trying to shoot.

Players can, however, steal the ball out of the hands of their opponents as long as they do not make contact with the player himself.

Players dribble up the court, but once they stop they must keep one foot fixed to the floor and pass the ball within five seconds.

The only exception is when they come to shoot, when they can take two steps after dribbling as they set up to score a basket.

Do not expect to see the world famous number 23 as worn by basketball legend Michael Jordan. In the Olympics players can only wear numbers between four and 15.





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