BILBAO, SPAIN — One thing the U.S. National Team never has to worry about in international competition is confidence. The continuous destruction of the competition has a way of fortifying that quality in a group, no matter the parts.
A slow start, a tight quarter here or there is not enough to rattle a locker room full of NBA stars who know that every time they hit the gym they are considered the prohibitive favorites.
Their 5-0 march through Group C, finished off with a 95-71 win over Mike Fratello‘s Ukraine team Thursday, was simply a warm-up for much bigger things in this FIBA World Cup. The round of 16 in Barcelona is a different monster, one-and-done. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski made sure to remind his team of that after the Americans clinched the top spot in the group a night earlier.
The final phase — which begins Saturday for the U.S. – is where the fun starts for the U.S. No matter what anyone else thinks, no matter the expectations, nothing has changed internally for a team that entered this competition with its fair share of skeptics.
“We expect to win them all,” said U.S. forward Kenneth Faried, “We have high hopes for each other, and we look at each other each and every day and look at each other’s eyes, and we see that fight. We’re not going down without a fight no matter who we play. We know the opponent is not going to go down without a fight, so we just got to be better than them, just that night.”
Faried wasn’t expected to be one of this team’s leaders but has emerged, along with Anthony Davis (who knows the ropes after a gold-medal ride along at the London Olympics in 2012), as the team’s centerpieces.
So far, the World Cup has been less about the competition, or lack thereof, and more about the National Team’s examination of their own work and what must be corrected.
“Once we start getting a big lead, we start focusing on what do we need to work on — what do we have to get better [at] to win this gold medal,” Davis said. “I think that’s our biggest thing. Right now, we make sure we’re playing defense, make sure to stop turning the ball over a lot. That comes from everybody on the floor and even out to the bigs, taking better shots, making sure we rebound the ball. That’s the only way you can score the ball, when you have the ball, so we have to make sure that we limit our turnovers and rebound.”
As hard as it is to gauge a team’s performance when it’s steamrolling the competition, Coach K and his staff have had plenty of practice. Their streak of wins during World Cup/World Championship, Olympic and international exhibition games grew to 59 with the win over Ukraine.
“For me, I look for togetherness, effort, how we share the ball,” Coach K said after his team thumped the Dominican Republic Wednesday. “We felt we were going to win, and then how do you play, and overall I thought everyone left the court feeling good about how they played.”
Whether or not they can continue to play this way, with the tougher competition ahead, is the lingering question.
They have elite NBA perimeter scorers — James Harden, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Derrick Rose all qualify — that would be more than happy to crank up their output if needed.
But why change if what you’ve been doing has worked this well so far?
“I honestly don’t think we’re going to change a lot,” said Thompson, like Faried a newbie to this sort of competition. “Like I said before, it’s on the defensive end. Teams don’t have the lateral quickness and length and athleticism that we do.”
Even if that kind of talk strikes some as a bit brash, it’s honest. It’s that confidence the U.S. has built over the years.
“We’ve just got to keep clogging those passing lanes and make it tough on them when they go to the basket and limit 3-point opportunities,” Thompson continued, “because a lot of these great European teams have great shooters. We just want to make them get to the rim and finish over us. Guys like Anthony Davis and Kenneth and DeMarcus [Cousins] are monsters down there, so we know that’s our strength.”
When the National Team roster for the World Cup was finalized it wasn’t sure exactly where the strength would reside. Four big men 6-foot-10 or taller were selected for the first time during Coach K’s tenure, which was viewed by some as a sure sign toward potential matchups against other teams in the field like Spain and Brazil.
Coach K dismissed that theory.
“No. It’s really what we thought was the best balance for the team with a chance that at sometime we might take a look at Anthony [Davis] at the four,” he said. “Those 12 guys are the 12 guys who earned it in our opinion, and we felt that was the best balance especially with us knowing that Derrick [Rose] was going to be able to play. If we weren’t sure about Derrick, then I think we would have had to look at another way.”
They might not have to worry about another way until the very end of this competition.