MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Team USA coach Gregg Popovich sees Australia as a title threat at the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China.
He’ll soon find out how much of a threat when the teams meet Thursday in the first of two exhibition games in Melbourne (5:30 a.m. ET, NBA TV). A record Australian basketball crowd of 50,000 is forecast for the match at Marvel Stadium. The second game is set for Saturday.
“Huge, huge threat,” Popovich said of the Boomers. “They are one of the teams that can win the whole thing, without a doubt. I’m not saying that because I’m here. It’s just a fact.”
“They’ve been close for several years, and they are hungry. They are talented. They have the toughness and physicality to go with it. I think they are one of the top contenders without a doubt.”
Australia, led by Patty Mills, who is coached by Popovich at San Antonio, lost the bronze medal final at the 2016 Olympics to Spain.
The U.S. team is thin on superstars, with only Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez combining for five NBA All-Star appearances in comparison to their last Olympics squad which had 33.
But Walker, who last month joined Boston after eight seasons in Charlotte, said criticism of the U.S. team was spurring them on ahead of its title defense in China.
“We don’t care — we want to be here and are putting in the time to be here and we definitely take that as motivation,” Walker said Wednesday. “We have a bunch of guys who don’t mind being the underdogs. We are hungry and we are going to go out there to try and win a gold medal.”
Walker said he, Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell and Celtics guard Marcus Smart would share the captaincy duties as part of a leadership group.
“I take pride in being a leader and guys looking to me and I’m here to set the tempo and bring my experience and energy,” he said.
Australia, meanwhile, hopes to end 55 years of losses against the U.S. The Americans have won all 25 games against Australia since 1964.