MIAMI (AP) – USA Basketball practice was winding down for the day. Players scattered around the Miami Heat practice field to shoot free throws and jumpers, with assistant coaches and other team personnel chatting with them and grabbing rebounds.
That was when Jim Boylen needed some alone time.
He grabbed a folding chair, carried it across the pitch, set it up in the middle of the field on the far sideline, and spent a few minutes by himself, surveying the scene, taking notes, and checking the training plan for the day.
“I was like, ‘Did we do what we need to do today?’ said Boylen, the former head coach of the University of Utah and the Chicago Bulls. “Because we can’t skip steps, we don’t have time to change course, and we have a lot to do.”
Boylen’s current job is a largely thankless and massive undertaking. He’s coaching USA Basketball into another World Cup qualifying window – with games Friday in Puerto Rico and Monday in Cuba to complete the first round of the tournament. The Americans (3-1) have already qualified for the second round, and a 2-0 record in those next two games would move them considerably closer to a spot in next year’s Basketball World Cup.
“I’ve said it before, and if I repeat myself, I’m sorry, but it’s the most competitive thing I’ve ever done,” Boylen said. “And here’s why: you have 10 days to put the team together, you have 11 days together as a team, seven training sessions, travel and you play meaningful games that we have to win. You fight a lot of problems. This makes it the most competitive thing.
Take the challenge. It’s officially game week for the USA Men’s World Cup Qualifying Team!
July 1 against 🇵🇷
4th of July against 🇨🇺
— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) June 28, 2022
He’s not taking the Olympic team to Puerto Rico and Cuba. As usual, the Americans use a squad made up of mostly G League players or others who play in foreign leagues. Most of the 12 American players have some NBA experience, but many hadn’t played together until arriving at camp in Miami last week.
That’s the difference: The teams the United States will face on this trip have largely been together for years. The Americans, by comparison, set up their first out-of-bounds game 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 United States who would go on to be part of that squad until he left. be ruled out by a hand injury. “I think Coach is doing a great job of bringing us back to basics and getting us together in such a short time to face these teams that have always played. You know how excited these teams are to play us, and all that that comes with representing the best team in the world and having the United States on your chest.
It’s a major selling point for Boylen and Americans, even if it’s apparently not necessary. Boylen said most players, when approached to play for this team, said yes before the question could even be asked.
The second qualifying round begins in August and the records of the six matches played in the first round will be maintained. At the end of the second round, the teams will have played 12 qualifying matches; USA will likely need at least seven wins to clinch one of the seven available World Cup berths in the FIBA Americas Region.
A pair of victories on this trip would bring the Americans that much closer. And while the United States are the reigning four-time Olympic champions, as well as the highest-ranked nation in the world by FIBA, the international games – especially in qualifying – are simply different. Some game rules differ from what American players typically face, quarters last 10 minutes instead of 12, and games often get quite physical, especially on the road.
“There’s a misconception, and I say this to our guys: We’re playing their game,” Boylen said. “We can’t have that ego where we invented basketball. And we certainly didn’t invent World Cup qualifying basketball or FIBA basketball, did we? We are playing their game, on their territory, and it will be a challenge. We have to have the appropriate fear and respect our opponent, but we’re not going to be afraid.