Posted Sep 10 2010 11:40AM
ISTANBUL -- Call it "The Six-Week Challenge."
It's not a reality show or a weight-loss gimmick. It's the task of taking 12 guys who have never played basketball together and turning them into the best in the world ... in just six weeks.
And in that final week, if your new team has just one hiccup -- just one span of 40 minutes when it's not at its very best -- you fail.
Now, of those 12 players, only one has ever played center. Only three were NBA All-Stars last season. Only five are old enough to rent a car. And nine of them -- two-thirds of the team -- never have played under the rules that will be used over the six weeks.
That has been the challenge facing Mike Krzyzewski this summer. As the head coach of the U.S. National Team readies his 12 guys for the semifinals in the FIBA World Championship, even his harshest critics now will have to admit: He's been up to the challenge.
"I think he's fulfilled by the mission that we're all on, because he enjoys it so much," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo says.
Krzyzewski clearly loves this challenge. With college recruiting over for the summer, he could have spent the last month relaxing and preparing for the upcoming season at Duke. But he'd much rather be spending his days on the practice floor and his nights in a hotel ballroom watching film.
"I've grown to really respect him so much more just playing for him and seeing how much he puts into this," Chauncey Billups says. "He's so passionate. He's up late hours watching film. He's all-in."
"His passion for the game is so high," adds U.S. assistant coach Jay Triano, who has been a part of the USA Basketball program since 2007, but hasn't been with the team during an international competition before this year. Triano says it's Krzyzewski's "competitive drive" that has stood out the most. At moments during their film sessions, Triano says, Krzyzewski will suddenly stop the tape, turn to the rest of the staff and say, "We have to win this game!"
"You put him in a situation where you want to win something, you want him on your side," Triano says.
Krzyzewski clearly knows how to transfer that drive to his players, too.
"It doesn't make any difference who they are or what level of stardom that they have, he connects with them," Colangelo says. "And what I have sensed since we've been together is that the players are very responsive to him."
"When he speaks, you listen," Kevin Love admits. "He gets us fired up to play big time."
This is a much different group than the one Krzyzewski led to an Olympic gold medal in 2008. This roster, with six of the players either 21 or 22 years old, needs more instruction. Krzyzewski will point out that he has players at Duke that are the same age. But he admits there's only so much coaching you can do in six weeks.
"What you want to do is put enough in that doesn't make them non-instinctive," he says. "We put in enough and allow some slippage, where it's not completely right, just so that we don't become basically anal in making something perfect. And hopefully attitude and speed can make up for it. It's just very unusual and it's unlike the other [international] teams, because they have that continuity [of returning players]."
In the end, the American players will end up playing just nine games that count. But the trip to get to those games, from New York to Madrid to Athens to Istanbul, has been a grind. It's been more than a month since the American players last slept in their own beds. Part of Krzyzewski's job is to keep both their bodies and minds fresh.
"We throw information at him all the time," Triano says. "And one of his strengths is regulating what is too much and what is not enough."
Instead of worrying about his team's lack of experience, Krzyzewski has tried to turn its youth into a positive by getting them to play with more energy than their opponent. Instead of trying to adjust to the opponent's size advantage, he has forced other teams to deal with the Americans' speed and athleticism.
"When you're watching film, the things he talks about really show in the game," Kevin Durant, the team's biggest star, says. "And that's something that's very special. I really haven't seen it too much in a coach that he really knows in depth about every possession, every play and plays ahead."
At Duke, Krzyzewski has won 12 ACC championships, been to the Final Four 11 times and captured four national championships. He led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 2008. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2001.
But if he can win the 2010 FIBA World Championship here in Istanbul with what many have called the USA's "B Team," the accomplishment should go near the top of his very long list of accolades.
"Regardless of what takes place in these remaining games, it's been an amazing job, considering that we've completely turned over the roster since '08," Colangelo says . "It's always challenging when you're bringing new people together. But I'm not sure it could have worked any better."
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