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.