Ready for the worlds
US, Coach K looking for No. 1
ISTANBUL — Mike Krzyzewski’s college kids were overmatched, his NBA All-Stars a bit unready. Now he will try with a team that’s somewhere in between.
An 0-for-2 showing in the world championships is the only real blemish in Krzyzewski’s résumé, something he gets to work on starting today when the United States opens against Croatia.
The US team has won the world championships only three times, a stunningly low total for a country that has dominated Olympic play. Krzyzewski wasn’t all that surprised because while the Americans have always viewed the worlds as a second-class event, it’s the top priority for many of the nations that have been beating them.
“I think the world puts such an emphasis on it and we send different teams all the time. Their countries send their main teams,’’ Krzyzewski said yesterday after practice. “For a long time it was just the college players competing and then, internationally, for us it wasn’t always that competition that brought everybody wanting to play for it like the Olympics.
“So we have unique teams that come here and I think the teams that we’ve sent have more room for error, just like ours. We have a really good team, but there’s room for error because we’re not big and we’re not old.’’
Krzyzewski coached the last US team composed of college players, winning bronze in 1990. He got another shot and another bronze four years ago after a team that included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony was stunned by Greece in the semifinals.
His team now lacks that star power, and also is young with an average age of about 24. But many players on this squad have experience within the USA Basketball program, which is much more developed than it was in 2006.
“I just thought our culture wasn’t set enough to do it,’’ Krzyzewski said. “We were a little bit young like we are now — we’re younger now — but we have a better culture in place, so we have I think a greater chance to win. It’s not a done deal, there are a lot of good teams here. We won’t take anything for granted, we know that we can get beat here.’’
The Americans won their last world title in 1994. A lockout prevented them from using NBA players four years later, but the pros were back for a pathetic sixth-place finish in 2002, when the United States lost for the first time when using NBA players.
Their three world titles in 15 tries are far below their total of 13 gold medals in 16 Olympics.
“Basketball is universal now, it’s not just played in one place,’’ forward Lamar Odom said. “We put a team together in a month’s span, sometimes you take your bumps and bruises, and these guys have been playing together their whole lives. It happens.’’
The bronze behind Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in Krzyzewski’s first attempt was understandable, since the Yugoslav team that stopped the Americans featured five future NBA players, including Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, and the late Drazen Petrovic.
“The first time was the last time the college kids played, and Russia and Yugoslavia were still together. There’s no way you were going to beat them. Both of them could have been NBA teams at that time, and a lot of their players ended up being in the NBA,’’ Krzyzewski said.
He committed to return as national team coach last year in part because he and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo want to make the world championships more of a priority. They believed they would be joined by some players from the 2008 Olympic gold-medal squad, but all declined to play this summer. Instead, the Americans are considered only a slight favorite — or even behind defending champion Spain to some.