More Wetzel – Team USA's full-court press
LAS VEGAS – There remains a school of thought – as everlasting as it is patently ridiculous – that the United States could go back to dominating international basketball if we just "sent the college kids."
It stems from the romantic (if not completely misguided) notion that the college guys would play "harder" and "together" and Lord knows what other nonsense. Truth is, a team of college players at the Olympics, or this month's world championships in Japan, would lose every single game by 40 points. Even to Angola, the perpetual 16 seed of international hoops.
Regardless, the College Guy Argument is one reason that there is a significant number of Americans who openly root against their own men's basketball team, a sentiment based on a hatred of the NBA and its players and a misunderstanding of the complexity of the NBA game.
The hiring of Mike Krzyzewski, the college icon from Duke, as national team coach was hailed by many in those circles as a nod to the so-called purity of college basketball. Krzyzewski, they believe, will restore a sensible amount of pride, effort, discipline and heart to Team USA.
So here is the interesting part: Krzyzewski, whose U.S. team plays Puerto Rico in an exhibition game here on Thursday, may indeed lead the Americans back to the top, but the way he is doing it is a far cry from the stereotypical rah-rah yet totalitarian college style.
Coach K is acting more like a pro coach. Or more importantly, a smart coach, which very well could make him a very successful coach.
Krzyzewski is taking this immense amount of talent and letting it breathe. He is communicating to the players like the grown men they are. He is respecting everyone's ability and commitment.
He, unlike critics of the NBA, is fully aware that pro players not only play hard but they also play extremely hard. He, more than anyone, understands that while college guys slapping the floor in a public display of defensive intensity is nice, it doesn't mean Bruce Bowen can't lock you down without such fuss.
Mostly, Krzyzewski is having fun, but in a business sense. "We aren't going on a canoe trip," he said when asked if he had organized any team-bonding exercises.
He isn't acting like this is the ACC and everyone's scholarship depends on pleasing him.
"I'm very impressed with him," Dwyane Wade said. "He's kind of letting everyone be themselves and not trying to change anyone's game."
"You want a coach who will adjust to his players, not have the players adjust to you," Gilbert Arenas said.
"I haven't had one practice with him, but I love him," said Kobe Bryant, who is sitting out this summer's action due to recent knee surgery. "Just from the conversations I've had with him."
A lot of people might have wanted to see a college coach give those overpaid pros hell, but this is about Mike Krzyzewski, player's coach, someone with great respect for his players' talent and professionalism.
"He's working with us, learning what everyone does best," LeBron James said. "He's been great."
Krzyzewski is incredibly intelligent. Not just basketball smart, but smart in every single way. West Point-educated and a former Army officer, he would have succeeded in just about any career he had chosen – business, military, politics even.
He is one of the most detail-oriented, calculatingly goal driven and fiercely competitive people you will ever meet. That's always been his secret. That's always been the driving force that raised Duke out of the considerable shadows of local rivals North Carolina and North Carolina State.
And that's why his selection as national team coach made so much sense. He always understood that he would have to adjust his coaching style to make this work. And he has done it from Day 1.
Krzyzewski has been focused mostly on the defensive end of the court, installing a full-court press. He smartly delegated most hands-on offensive coaching to Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns, whose system is exponentially more complex than Duke's fairly basic, just-go-play style. Coach K can win with that in college because he usually has the better talent. He understands that isn't the case in international basketball. He is secure enough in his abilities to willingly change.
The U.S. players talk glowingly about what has been exceptionally honest and open communication and a complete lack of head games, a significant departure from the recent Larry Brown era.
Granted, it is early. "There has never been a problem at this stage," one USA Basketball official said. "We haven't even changed time zones."
Who knows what will happen in the face of adversity? But still, the start has been strong. Everyone is enthused. Everyone is playing hard. Everyone is saying the right things.
Everyone has respect for the college guy who is running a pro-style team and hoping to prove that, regardless of where you fall on the great American basketball divide, he is the best coach we have.
- Mike Krzyzewski
- international basketball