MIAMI – USA Basketball practice was winding down for the day. Players scattered about the Miami Heat practice court to go shoot some free throws and jumpers, with assistant coaches and other team staffers chatting with them and grabbing rebounds.
This was when Jim Boylen needed some alone time.
He grabbed a folding chair, carried it across the court, set it up at midcourt on the far sideline and spent a few minutes all by himself, surveying the scene, taking notes and checking things off the day’s practice plan.
“I was asking myself, ‘Did we get done what we have to get done today?’” said Boylen, the former University of Utah and Chicago Bulls head coach. “Because we can’t skip steps, we don’t have time to change course, and we’ve got a lot to get done.”
Boylen’s current job is a largely thankless and massive undertaking. He’s coaching USA Basketball in another window of World Cup qualifying — with games Friday at Puerto Rico and Monday at Cuba set to complete the first round of the tournament. The Americans (3-1) have already qualified for the second round, and going 2-0 in these next two games would move them significantly closer to clinching a spot in next year’s Basketball World Cup.
“I’ve said this before, and if I’m repeating myself, I’m sorry, but this is the most competitive thing I’ve ever done,” Boylen said. “And this is why: You have 10 days to put the team together, you have 11 days together as a team, seven practices, travel, and you play meaningful games that we need to win. You’re fighting a lot of issues. That makes it the most competitive thing.”
He’s not taking the Olympic team to Puerto Rico and Cuba. As usual, the Americans are using a team composed primarily of either G League players or others who are playing in overseas leagues. Most of the 12-man U.S. roster has some NBA experience, but many had not played together before arriving for camp in Miami last week.
That’s the difference: the teams that the U.S. will face on this trip have largely been together for years. The Americans, by comparison, installed their first out-of-bounds play on Saturday, four days before heading to Puerto Rico.
“It’s very difficult to come together and really play as a team,” said David Stockton, a World Cup qualifying veteran for the U.S. who was going to be part of this team until getting sidelined by a hand injury. “I think Coach does a great job of getting us back to the basics and bringing us together in such a short time to go against these teams that have played forever. You know how hyped up those teams are to play us, and all that comes with representing the best team in the world and having USA on your chest.”
That is a major selling point for Boylen and the Americans, although it apparently doesn’t have to be. Boylen said most players, when approached about playing for this team, said yes before the question could even be asked.
The second round of qualifying starts in August, and the records from the six games played in the first round will carry over. When the second round ends the teams will have played 12 qualifying games; the U.S. will likely need at least seven wins to grab one of the seven available World Cup spots from the FIBA Americas region.
A pair of wins on this trip would move the Americans that much closer. And while the U.S. is the four-time defending Olympic champions, plus the top-ranked nation in the world by FIBA, international games — especially in qualifying — are just different. Some rules of play differ than what U.S. players are typically dealing with, quarters are 10 minutes long instead of 12, and games often get quite physical, especially on the road.
“There’s a misconception, and I tell our guys this: We’re playing they’re game,” Boylen said. “We can’t have this ego where like we invented basketball. And we definitely didn’t invent World Cup qualifier basketball or FIBA Basketball, right? We are playing their game, on their turf, and it’s going to be a challenge. We have to have the appropriate fear, and respect our opponent, but we’re not going to be scared.”
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