USA Prepares for a World of Good Competition
With stakes high, Team USA arrives in Japan focused on winning
SAPPORO, Japan, Aug. 18, 2006 -- Ask a basketball fan in the United States of America for a dream ticket to an event.
Game 7 of the NBA Finals, at courtside?
NCAA semi-final Saturday?
Maybe, a front row seat at the NBA All-Star game or a baseline seat at the ACC Tournament final?
Ask the same question of an international basketball fan?
The response just might be … “Any seat for any game of the World Championship.”
The tournament is that big in the eyes of the world basketball community.
The 2006 version of the World Championship just might be the best basketball tournament in the history of the sport.
It’s that good.
The "comp" is that tough.
The schedule is that grueling with a new format of 24 (not 16) national teams, including four ‘at-large’ bids that bought dance card tickets to basketball powerhouses, Serbia & Montenegro (reigning 2002 World Champion), Turkey, Italy (2004 Olympic silver medalists) and Puerto Rico.
The stakes are high.
The rewards are immediate and long-term, the ultimate in world basketball prestige for 2006 and an automatic bid to the 2008 Beijing Olympics men’s basketball tournament.
The entire USA Basketball contingent for the 2006-2008 period of time is well aware of that, and the focus and the mission at hand. They are taking it very seriously, leaving nothing to chance.
"We’ve had extensive coverage in terms of scouting the other teams in the World Championship," said Jerry Colangelo, the Managing Director of USA Basketball’s senior men’s national team. "We’ve been getting some very impressive reports regarding a number of the teams. Argentina, of course. France, Spain, Greece, Slovenia, Lithuania – there are a lot of really good teams.
"We think it’s going to be a great competition. We have great respect for all of them," added Colangelo. "We have to be prepared. We’re not taking anything for granted - far from it."
The 24 national teams are all concluding their training camp phases and putting the last baskets in at the various exhibition games and tournaments. During that time, the USA has been busy compiling scouting information and preparing reports, with initial focus on the five opponents of the preliminary round.
"I think the intensity and the pressure will increase in this preliminary round," said Rudy Tomjanovich, the Director of Scouting for the 2006-08 USA Basketball Senior National Team program. "It’s the real thing for us, Tomjanovich added, "and one of the tests that we’ll have is playing five games in six nights. That’s even tough by NBA standards.
"We feel that we have an advantage in that area because of our depth. We can keep sending players in, where some of the other teams will not be as deep."
Tomjanovich has extensive international experience as head coach of the gold medal winning 2000 USA Olympic team which faced tough competition and some close games at Sydney and as a coach of the 1998 World Championship team that brought home bronze with a group assembled just weeks before the tournament.
Tomjanovich has been paying as close attention to the rest of the world’s best national teams, as he’s paid to Coach K and the current USA squad.
"We felt that we had a pretty good break, where we got to see some of the other teams that we will play in our group (during the pre-World Championship exhibition game schedule) like Puerto Rico and Lithuania," he said. "We also got a chance to see Italy, who will play in our group. So, we do have a lot of the teams scouted out and Coach K has done a great job of setting a pressure defense to take people out of their strong suit."
"So far, the team chemistry has been fantastic. More than you could ever expect of guys who have just come together. We have willingness to work together, willingness to work towards a common goal and to put individual things on the back burner. That’s all been a very strong point of this team."
So what does Tomjanovich think of the USA’s first opponent in the worlds, an August 19 match-up against Puerto Rico?
"Puerto Rico is a team that we handled pretty well in our scrimmage and our first exhibition game, the friendly game in Las Vegas," he said. "But, they will throw down different strategies.
"In the lead up to the (2004) Olympics, it was very similar. We beat them by a large margin (in an exhibition game in Jacksonville, Fla) but they came back and sat back in a zone (in Game 1 in Athens) and we couldn’t find a range. It was a big loss and a shock to the United States. We feel our team is much better equipped to attack the zone. Shooting wise, we’re better, and we also have one of the best zone coaches of all time in Coach Jim Boeheim. It has been a real high priority for us and I think our team is very good at it."
One of Tomjanovich’s most trusted deputies is Dean Cooper, an assistant coach and scout for the Houston Rockets and Team USA. Cooper marvels at the depth of the international teams and the overall depth of the competition at the 2006 World Championship.
"International play has been improving every year," said Cooper. "Look at the past few years – Greece won the European championship; Argentina won the gold at the Olympics. There have been different countries and different teams winning over the past four or five years and a lot of their players are still playing. They’ve been together through those years and championships. It’s going to be a real battle.
"Our (preliminary round) pool is good, and should we do well, we would match up against pool "C" – (Australia, Brazil, Greece, Lithuania, Qatar and Turkey) which is arguably the deepest pool in the whole tournament," Cooper added.
"When you look at the various rosters, for instance, we expect that France will have five NBA players on their roster. The depth of the other teams is very good.
"Slovenia has several NBA players, such as Rasho Nesterovic who won an NBA championship with San Antonio; Beno Udrih won a championship, Bostjan Nachbar who is a terrific shooter. They’re tall and long. They might not be the most athletic team in our bracket, but they have guys that have played together and guys that have played against our players so they understand the speed and the pace of the game."
What will be the USA’s basic strategy against the fierce international competition?
"I think Coach K’s focus the whole way is to use the USA’s depth," Cooper said. "Let’s use our speed and let’s use our athleticism. We need to try to control the tempo and negate the differences in the game, the international game vs. the NBA game."
"We need to use some of our strengths to our advantage. It’s obvious from our five exhibition games that we are going to go out and 'get after it.' Use our depth and substitute. It’s not an 82-game schedule. We’ve got to get it done now.
"I think our coaches have done a great job in finding different ways to structure the game, in terms of substitution patterns and things like that," Cooper continued. "Our guys have really responded to it. They’ve taken a lot of pride in the fact that we have to play hard and we have to play defense. They’ve taken a lot of pride in our defense."
Team USA’s Joe Johnson agrees, 100 percent.
"I think our approach of the games will be a lot different from the mental aspect and a physical aspect," said Johnson after Team USA’s final workout in Seoul, Korea. "We all realize that there is a lot more at stake. I think we’ll come out, ready to play."
Team USA point guard Chris Paul has improved each and everyday of training camp but looks forward to the real competition, the preliminary round in Sapporo, Japan.
"We’re very excited," said Paul. "We feel like we’ve played pretty well in the (five) exhibition games and now we’re moving on to the real thing. We get to play games that really count. And, we’re moving one step close, then closer to our goal of a gold medal."
How will Paul and his teammates approach Puerto Rico, a team that the USA is familiar with from two exhibitions in mid-July?
"They have a great point guard in Carlos Arroyo. He really runs that team," noted Paul. "Plus, we’ve played them twice, so they know what we’re going to do and we know what they’re going to do. The first game will be all about who wants it the most."
Who wants it the most? Who will advance? Who will face the pressure?
All of the preparation now leads to the real deal. The 2006 World Championship of Basketball.
"Now the games count," said USA forward Elton Brand. "Everybody has been playing hard and everybody has been doing everything they can to make the team. Now, you must dive for that loose ball, you must play the right way and share the ball. You must make that big plays and you’ve got to win this thing.
"That’s our goal."