The US men’s basketball team completed their preliminary round at 5-0 and won their first knock-out game yesterday by 40 points over Australia. I think it’s safe to say (again) that these guys are quite a bit better than our recent pro teams.
There are still two main concerns for our guys though – half-court offense and half-court defense. Get an uptempo game with lots of running and we’ll destroy any team in the world – any team. But we still have our limits in a more controlled game; after all, our team really hasn’t been together for very long.
A great example of what we’ll likely see when we match up against a top opponent (probably in the Championship game) was what Italy threw at us in our penultimate pool game. The Italians didn’t zone us as much as I expected, but they played a disciplined half-court game at both ends of the court and exposed some of our flaws. In particular, we seemed to be unable to properly defend the pick-and-roll. Nearly every time they set a high screen, both of our guys would jump the ball and they’d quickly hit the big man diving to the hoop for a layup. On the other end of the floor, we tended to stand around too much and wait for someone to make a move. Fortunately, we’re damn good and have players like Carmelo Anthony who hit everything he threw at the basket that day.
Yesterday we played an Australian team that played (or tried) a similar game, but we showed that we had learned a lot in just a couple of days. On defense, we started out jumping around too much, but eventually settled into a more controlled aggression. When we locked down without taking wild gambles, the Aussies were completely flummoxed. The US turned that pressure into a bunch of fast breaks (off of turnovers and long rebounds after forced shots) and completely blew them out in the second quarter, 32-6.
On the offensive end, our boys were much more organized as well and took apart the defense with a great combination of passing, dribble penetration, proper spacing and outstanding outside shooting. Again, it looks like Coach K put some good time in reinforcing the things we want to do in the half-court and it took. Remember, these players aren’t just fantastic athletes, they really know the game and if properly motivated, they can quickly figure out an effective offense.
Earlier, I had written that I was still concerned about this team’s outside shooting; I said I would have liked to have had one more gunner like Ray Allen or Michael Redd. I’m backing off that statement a bit. Joe Johnson’s a better shooter than I realized and I guess I just forgot how well Carmelo Anthony shoots. He’s just been deadly from nearly everywhere on the floor. Shane Battier is also hitting (and damn does he have pretty form!) and LeBron James, Chris Paul, Antawn Jamison and Kirk Hinrich are all threats as well. This team can hit threes. If we have a game where the shots won’t fall, it won’t be for a lack of shooters.
My one complaint about the FIBA Championships is about the announcing. The duo of Jim Durham and Fran Fraschilla has been doing every game and they are just killing me. Fraschilla obviously knows the game and he does make some great observations, but he also talks way too much and says way too many stupid things. It really takes away from what is otherwise some beautiful basketball. My favorite Fraschilla bon mot was early in the Australia game where he commented that it was now like Sweet Sixteen, meaning that we were in a tournament now and there were 16 teams left. OK, good point. But then he followed that up by saying “and this game is like a 2 vs. 15 seed.” Oh boy. Fran, maybe you’d know this if you made a few more NCAA tourneys as a coach (and we wouldn’t be subjected to your analysis), but 2 v 15 is a first round game. And do you really think that the United States, the #1 ranked team in the world, would be a 2 seed?
ps. It was nice to see everyone’s favorite UNC alumnus, Makhtar Ndiaye, playing for Senegal. In the game against the US, he managed not to create any international incidents, threaten to kill anyone or upset Mickie Krzyzewski’s delicate sensibilities, but he did show that he hasn’t been attending his Mensa meetings when he fouled Chris Bosh on a three-point attempt. Good to see you again, Makhtar.
p.p.s. Next up for the US on the former-mid-level-UNC-star itinerary is Ademola Okulaja, who plays for Germany. Okulaja’s squad knocked Maryland forward (and the ACC career leader in E’s per letter of his first name) Ekene Ibekwe and his Nigeria squad out of the tourney. NC State’s Engin Atsur and Turkey are still alive.