The knee-jerk reaction to USA Basketball’s stunning failure to win gold at the U-19 World Cup is to blame its head coach for once again squandering superior talent.
In reality, Saturday’s 99-87 semifinal loss to Canada isn’t as embarrassing for Calipari as it may seem, nor is it fair to saddle him with the reputation for doing less with more.
The Americans undeniably boasted the strongest roster of the 16 nations who participated in this year’s tournament, but there’s a reason the U-19 World Cup is traditionally the toughest FIBA championship for USA Basketball to win. The talent gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world is more narrow at this age group than at any other level.
Whether it’s Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball or Jayson Tatum, the best American basketball players 19 years old or younger are all playing for their NBA teams in the Summer League rather than for their country in Egypt. Michael Porter Jr. and other elite incoming college freshmen also declined the chance to try out because they preferred to spend the summer acclimating to their new campus, getting to know their new teammates and preparing for the season ahead.
Many of the other countries participating in the U-19 World Championships either don’t face this problem or aren’t hit as hard by player absences as USA Basketball is. Those countries also often benefit from superior continuity gained from selecting players with years of youth national team experience, a luxury the U.S. doesn’t have at the U-19 level.
Those disadvantages help explain why the U.S. only won one of the six U-19 World Cups held from 1995 to 2011. Billy Donovan and Sean Miller overcame those obstacles to lead the U.S. to gold in 2013 and 2015, but Calipari could not deliver a threepeat this year.
While the Americans coasted to an unbeaten 5-0 record entering the semifinals, they had no answer for Canadian guard R.J. Barrett on Saturday. The top prospect in the 2019 Class drew a series of ill-advised fouls on Hamidou Diallo and demolished a parade of other U.S. defenders, scoring 38 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists.
Insufficient ball movement, chemistry and outside shooting also hurt the Americans against Canada’s zone defense. The U.S. misfired on all but six of the 23 threes it attempted, missed 18 foul shots and consistently failed to convert at the rim despite grabbing an impressive 30 offensive rebounds.
By the time Barrett fouled out of the game with a few minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the U.S. already trailed by double figures. The Americans surrendered 17 points during the final 5 minutes as they tried in vain claw back into striking distance.
“We scored enough points to win, but then it came down to some breakdowns defensively,” Calipari said. “The other thing was, R.J. had it going. I told the team after the game, I needed to try some different things — go zone, trap pick and roll, trap him. I kind of rode it because I thought we would figure out something, and that is my mistake. That’s not these kids’ mistake.”
Credit Calipari for appropriately shouldering some responsibility for Saturday’s demoralizing loss. It couldn’t have been easy to stomach an upset that will probably damage his chances of someday succeeding Gregg Popovich as head coach of the U.S. Senior National team.
Failing to win gold also provides ammunition for Calipari’s critics who are quick to label him an underachiever for only delivering one national title at Kentucky. That notion is laughable, of course, given the Wildcats’ achievements during his tenure.
In eight years as coach at Kentucky, Calipari has won more than 80 percent of his games, finished no worse than second in the SEC and reached the Elite Eight six times and the Final Four on four occasions. Even more impressive, he has achieved that level of consistency with teams laden with freshmen and sophomores, a feat that speaks to his ability to motivate NBA-bound prospects to band together in pursuit of a common goal.
You can argue that success is more a product of his recruiting than his tactical acumen. You can argue his talent-laden 2010 and 2014 teams should also boast championship rings. But the single-elimination NCAA tournament is notoriously unforgiving, and college basketball history is littered with elite teams that failed to cut down the nets.
Ultimately, whatever damage Calipari did to his reputation with Saturday’s loss, Kentucky will benefit from his stint as the USA Basketball’s U-19 head coach.
Diallo and Kentucky signee P.J. Washington both got acclimated to Calipari’s coaching style the past few weeks. Calipari also had a chance to form a bond with four promising high school seniors, point guard Immanuel Quickley, shooting guard Romeo Langford and forwards Cameron Reddish and Louis King.
A commitment from a couple members of that quartet might ease Calipari’s disappointment at failing to win gold and render the uninformed criticism less frustrating.
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