Ukraine and The Czar

In September, Ukraine will join 23 basketball teams in Slovenia to compete in EuroBasket 2013 in hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The road to success in the talent-packed tournament will be arduous. Our first mission was getting our guys back into shape after the postseason break through rigorous strength and conditioning workouts. We got our feet wet with some exhibition games in Slovenia over the weekend, and now our team has returned to Kiev for ten days to prepare for a four-team tourney including Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia that will take place in Serbia next week.

USA Basketball: USA Narrowly Escapes Brazil in Their Toughest Test of the Tournament to Date

Team USA was fortunate to hang on for a 70-68 win over Brazil today, making it three in a row. USA leads Group B in the preliminary round of the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.

Although Kevin Durant had another huge 27-point performance, this was the USA’s sloppiest showing so far this summer. They had no ball movement offensively; they went to one-on-one play way too often; and they did not bring the same defensive intensity we saw in their previous matchups.

Credit Brazil for having an outstanding game and making huge shots. They put forth a great effort, but looks like the fatigue factor may have set in during the second half as Brazil didn’t come close to making the same number shots as in the first half. They certainly could have used the help of Anderson Varejão, who continues to rest a sprained right ankle.

Game 3 was a nail-biter up until the very end, when Leandro Barbosa missed a layup at the buzzer that would have tied up the game and forced overtime. Team USA’s lack of defensive intensity combined with the high number of turnovers nearly cost them the game. But thanks to their perseverance and a little luck, USA remains undefeated.

Fortunately Team USA can use their day off tomorrow to regroup and get their legs back under them before facing Iran on Wednesday. And the fledgling team will get a couple more international games under its belt before facing some of their more dangerous adversaries.

USA Basketball: 2010 FIBA World Championships

Today USA Basketball officially kicked off its campaign to reclaim the World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey with a decisive 106-78 win over Croatia in their first game of the FIBA prelims. I got a chance to talk with Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim last week. Both are so proud of the effort their young USA squad has put forth so far. But they know it’s an arduous road to the Finals (they must play five games in six days during the first week of competition), and they understand what a difficult task it will be to go the distance. As basketball has increasingly gained global popularity over the years, the level of talent has steadily increased among international clubs. So coaches and players alike know they have to respect every opponent.

Team USA played solid ball in the exhibition games leading up to the first round, beating China, Lithuania and France fairly easily. However their friendly against the 2006 defending Champion Spain was anything but, and it wound up being an unbelievable game. The highly anticipated matchup was a huge event in Madrid and there were a number of luminaries in attendance including Pau Gasol and soccer super star Cristiano Ronaldo. Spain’s much more experienced, veteran team proved a tough test for the U.S. But Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant were sensational – Rose stepped up on offensive with a huge left-handed layup to put the USA ahead by one point at the end of the fourth, and Durant followed up on defense, blocking Spain’s would-be game winner as the clock wound down. Coach K also pulled a great tactical move by going to zone defense (Boeheim’s specialty) during Spain’s final possession, causing a little confusion on Spain’s part. For the USA to be able to hang on and come away with the 1-point win had to be a confidence booster for this young squad, as well as a warning to their opponents.

Greece is another very good, veteran team that managed to upset USA in the Semifinals four years ago. Though our roster was filled with stars, the Greek squad had the overwhelming advantage in terms of experience, having played together for three years. Our team’s lack of familiarity in regards to playing with one another wound up costing us a shot at the title.

And lack of experience in terms of both playing together and competing at the international level is still a concern for the fresh new faces who comprise the majority of this year’s roster. Though Wednesday’s 87-59 win over Greece was heartening, you can’t put too much stock in Team USA’s sweep of the friendlies. Greece was missing a few of their best players including center Ioannis Bourousis. And most teams won’t show all of their cards until the tournament gets underway. USA’s team chemistry has looked good from the start of training camp, but players still need to figure out their roles and how to play together. Practice time has been a scarce commodity. But the experience of playing a handful of international competitions heading into the tournament was invaluable.

It will be interesting to watch these young players grow up and develop in the international arena. A number of them will be the nucleus that moves forward to the next Olympics. While we’d expect to see marquee guys like Kobe, LeBron, Wade, Howard and Melo return to Team USA, their participation is not certain. And if they do compete in the next Olympics, it will probably be their last. So we will see this nucleus that we’re cultivating step forward to replace a lot of these veterans when they retire from international competition.

In addition to many formidable opponents, Team USA will also have to contend with the intensity of the impassioned crowd that will fill the Sinan Erdem Dome in Istanbul. It’s going to be a wild scene. I’ve been there, I know. The enthusiastic fans never stop with the cheering and chanting and singing – they carry on throughout the whole game. It’s a great basketball atmosphere.

Team USA may not be the overwhelming favorites in the 2010 Championship Tournament, but with our extreme athleticism and unquestionable talent we certainly rank among those teams expected to seriously contend for the Naismith. The key will be to create cohesiveness in a short period of time and to continue to improve with every game.

I’m excited for the next couple weeks of tournament play. I only wish that I could hear Marv call the games this weekend because he does such a great job with the pronunciation of the Croatian and Slovenian names. I’ve always admired him for that.

Next up: USA vs. Slovenia airs on Sunday, August 29th at 9:30 AM ET on ESPN2 and again at 6 PM ET. Click here to view the rest of the 2010 FIBA World Championship broadcast schedule.

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