USA opens Fiba World Cup quest, undaunted by doubters
SHANGHAI — Kemba Walker sees an irony in the notion that USA Basketball is vulnerable going into the World Cup.
It might be new for the U.S. program.
It isn’t that new for these U.S. players.
The 12-man squad that makes its World Cup debut Sunday (8:30 a.m. EDT) isn’t overpowering on paper. There’s a couple second-round picks in Joe Harris and Khris Middleton, a guard in Derrick White who had zero scholarship offers out of high school, and many who made the team weren’t prominent — or in many cases, even included — on USA Basketball’s wish list of players when the roster-building process started last year.
Walker tried to say none of that matters. And then he explained why it probably should matter.
“I think a lot of us have grown up with doubt coming into our careers,” Walker said. “It’s nothing new to us. That’s unnecessary at this point. Nobody really cares what people think. At the end of the day, we want to win. We have one goal: We want to win the gold medal. And we want to be here.”
The quest begins for the U.S. with its group-play opener against the Czech Republic. If they make the medal round the Americans — looking for an unprecedented third consecutive men’s World Cup title — will play eight games in four cities over the next 15 days.
The U.S. went 3-1 in its warmups for the World Cup, beating Spain by nine, Australia by 16 and Canada by 16. The Americans also lost to the Australians by four in Melbourne, the outcome in that stretch that obviously got the most attention and the first loss for a U.S. roster stocked with NBA players since Sept. 1, 2006.
The loss doesn’t mean anything in terms of World Cup standings. But it was a very big wake-up call.
“This is do-or-die now,” Harris said. “There is no more exhibitions, no more mulligans at it. We’ve talked about how important every single possession is in the FIBA game. You have 40 minutes of can’t turn the ball over, can’t make mental mistakes. Now it is 40 minutes of being locked in … and we have enough depth on this team, on the roster, to play maximum effort whenever you’re on the court.”
The FIBA world rankings still list the Americans as the No. 1 team in the world, by a fairly significant margin. But FIBA has also published an unofficial World Cup “power ranking” in recent weeks, one that has Serbia — which has made little secret of its belief that it can win the tourney — listed ahead of the U.S. going into the tournament.
It apparently hasn’t been bulletin-board material for the Americans.
“I don’t think about things like that,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “I didn’t know that, but it doesn’t really mean much.”
For the record, the Serbians still want the U.S. considered the favorite.
“I’m not thinking about the USA team,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic said. “I do respect them. I do think they’re the biggest favorite. Nevertheless, they don’t have some of their players but they still have a great, great team with great players and a great coach.”
The last World Cup was in 2014, when the Americans outscored opponents by 116 points in four warm-up games — as opposed to the 37-point margin in this year’s four friendlies. The closest game the U.S. played in that World Cup was 21 points, and the Americans beat Serbia by 37 in the gold medal game.
There was no doubt from the outside five years ago.
“The outside might have not given that to us in ’14, but I think as a competitor you always have a realistic respect for your opponent and you know that in a one-and-done tournament anything can happen,” said Mason Plumlee, the only returnee from that 2014 World Cup-winning squad. “So I felt that in ’14, I feel that now and that’s just what competition is.”
The 2016 Olympics was the last competition for the national team, though there was some doubt at times in that run to gold in Rio de Janeiro.
Half of the eight U.S. games in the Olympics were decided by 10 points or less. The U.S. won them all, including a pair of three-point decisions — one of them against Serbia. The Americans saw Serbia again in the gold-medal game and it was a rout, the U.S. winning by 30.
“We obviously hear the noise,” said Harrison Barnes, the only member of that Olympic team who is on this World Cup roster. “But at the end of the day, we’re the ones that’s putting in the time, we’re the ones that have to live with the results and we’re the ones who have to come together as a team. I think that’s what’s most important.”
Walker said the easiest way to silence doubters is simple — to win.
“We’re the ones who took on this opportunity to play for our country and represent our country,” Walker said. “So who cares about the outside noise at this point?”