Team USA and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (left, with Team USA assistant and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim) says his college ties have helped him with NBA players. (USA Today images)
BARCELONA — When a team rings up 61 straight wins during international competition, including the World Cup/World Championship and Olympics (and throwing in exhibitions), there are a number of factors involved.
Having the best and most star-studded roster every time you to take the floor helps. But the U.S. National Team has had more than just raw talent on its side.
During the Jerry Colangelo–Mike Krzyzewski era, the U.S. also has had a precise plan on how to structure the program, from the ground up, and a clear-cut understanding of the nuances that make the international game different from the NBA. The Americans also have had intense international scouting and have nurtured a revamped mindset among the players who make the up the pool upon which the roster is built.
With Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director, setting the overall operational tone, Coach K insists there are overlooked aspects of the program which allow him to do things differently than many of his NBA predecessors. For one, Krzyzewski’s extensive experience in a one-and-done tournament format helps, especially with NBA players who are used to best-of playoff series.
But Krzyzewski also points to this: Though he has been courted by NBA teams on several occasions, Coach K will almost certainly never take an NBA job where he would have to try to beat some of these players.
“I don’t coach against my players,” Krzyzewski said after the U.S. practice Monday at Palau Saint Jordi, where the Americans were preparing for Tuesday’s quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). “I’m not a pro coach. [Syracuse coach] Jim [Boeheim] and I have the respect of these guys because of doing well in college basketball. But we can develop our own individual relationships with them and then never compete against them. I think that’s been a hidden factor of success in all this stuff.”
Krzyzewski, of course, knows a thing or two about operating under the pressure of constant win-it-all expectations. He knows all about trying to live up to the hype of a team that’s supposed to play perfect all the time.
“I’ve lived with that for 25 years as the Duke coach,” he said. “I’m the most prepared to do that because we’re closely scrutinized like that in college basketball for everything we do. But this is at a much higher level. Actually it helps that I’m coming from that environment. I also think it helps, when we’re in this competition, the one-and-done, what we live all the time, whether it be an ACC tournament or a NCAA tournament, so I’ve been in 150 to 200 one-and-done games. We try to tell our players it’s the seventh game of a series. About half of them have been in a seventh game, so they don’t think it’s a series. We’re not just going to be in Madrid. We have to win to get there.”
As for what keeps him going, grinding like this on both the USA Basketball front and during his regular job at Duke, Coach K said it’s a combination of things that he learned long ago.
“It’s your watch, it’s your responsibility,” he said. “That’s something I learned at West Point. It’s your job right now. Do it the right way. And eventually someone else will have that job. But while you’re in command, make sure your unit does it the right way. And Jerry has set that example. We’ve tried to learn and we keep learning.”
A reporter trying to get a rise out of U.S. big man DeMarcus Cousins as the U.S. exited the floor from practice, quizzing the Sacramento Kings star on world geography:
“Do you know where Slovenia is?” the reporter asked.
“Do you know where Alabama is?’ Cousins replied.
Forget the friendly
The U.S. has already seen Slovenia on the court this summer. The Americans beat Slovenia 101-71 in an Aug. 26 exhibition game in Gran Canaria.
Led by Phoenix Suns All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran, Slovenia will present the U.S. with a style change that will likely cause Coach K to tinker with his rotation to make sure the U.S. can match up with a small-ball lineup.
“The very first thing you have to do is forget the friendly,” Coach K said. “They were holding their guys back and Goran was held down in minutes that game. They’ve gotten better and he’s become even more of a factor as the leader of the team. We’ve gotten better, too. But we just have to focus on the fact that they are an unusual team in that they can put five 3-point shooters on the court.”
This U.S. team is not only trying to win gold on Spain’s home turf, it is also trying to make a little history by becoming just the third nation to repeat as World Champs. Only Brazil (1959 and 1963) and Yugoslavia (1998 and 2002) have accomplished that feat since the event was initiated in 1950.
The U.S. is a four-time champion but never has been able to put together back-to-back titles.