U.S. learning on the fly at world championships

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USA Basketball still treats the world championships like an exhibition series and it shows.

Instead of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or any of the other members of the “Redeem Team” that won gold in Beijing two years ago, coach Mike Krzyzewski turned up in Turkey with a “B” squad short on height and experience, let alone any familiarity with the international style.

“It’ll be very much a developing team,” Krzyzewski acknowledged two weeks ago during a training session in New York. “We hope that we’ll have our best product by the medal round.”

Whether that’s true, and whether even this team’s best will be good enough remains to be seen. The Americans face Iran and Tunisia in their remaining preliminary-round games, practically guaranteeing they’ll advance. But their performance in their only tough test in the tournament so far left plenty to be desired.

Kevin Durant, their most reliable scorer, committed seven turnovers in that close win over Brazil and still hasn’t adapted to the way overseas refs view traveling. Derrick Rose, who’s supposed to be running the offense, runs himself into trouble way too often. Even venerable Coach K has caught some heat for his substitution patterns, a feat that would have been nearly impossible with the lineup USA Basketball put together for the last Summer Olympics. But that’s the hand he’s been dealt.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this when former NBA executive Jerry Colangelo took over as team director in 2005, on the heels of the “Abomination in Athens.” He hired Krzyzewski and the two promised to change the culture around USA Basketball, which effectively meant securing commitments from the best players available for international competitions and keeping enough of them on the same teams long enough to develop some cohesion.

Colangelo did that by cutting out the selection committee that had final say on his choices and a series of “eyeball-to-eyeball” meetings with every one of the players he wound up choosing and a few who didn’t make the cut. Instead of contacting Kobe Bryant’s agent or his representatives to set up a meeting, Colangelo simply showed up in Phoenix one day when the visiting L.A. Lakers arrived for a game. He greeted Bryant as he stepped off the team bus, wrapped an arm around his shoulders and made his sales pitch as the two walked toward the locker room.

“What happened in Athens made my job a lot easier,” Colangelo said at the time. “I’d usually start conversations trying to convey how blessed we all are to represent our country.

“But I rarely got halfway through the preamble, before they’d interrupt me,” he added, “and say, ‘I’m in.’”

It worked then and will probably work again by the time the 2012 Olympics roll around. But in the meantime, not one of the players he and Krzyzewski expected to provide up-and-coming players with a sense of continuity could be bothered to do the red, white and blue.

That’s left Coach K with a handful of 21-year-olds, only one player with any significant international experience _ 33-year-old Chauncey Billups and a few post players who are routinely being pushed around by veteran big men from teams that have been playing together for years.

That was essentially the plan going in, to use the competitions between Olympics to begin schooling youngsters such as Durant, Rose and Russell Westbrook to take over from Bryant, James and Chris Paul. But the rest of the world views the Olympics as a second-class competition. To most of them, the world championships matter more, the same way the World Cup is viewed by their soccer-mad countrymen.

Krzyzewski, at least, has gotten into the spirit of things. He treated the team’s final pre-tournament tuneup against defending champion Spain in Madrid like the gold-medal game, piling up minutes for his starters at the risk of having them fatigued once the real games were under way.

But he was determined to find out on the spot whether his players were motivated enough to overcome the problems presented by learning a new style of play on the fly. He got his answer in that win and then again when it counted against Brazil.

“We’ve only been together for a few weeks, and you don’t know until you’re in these situations if we’re going to have the character to win when we can’t hit a shot, when someone’s playing such good defense, and tonight I found that out,” Krzyzewski said after the Brazil win.

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