Commentary

Mike Krzyzewski on Team USA: 'We know we can be beaten'

Players very confident, but Krzyzewski says his team ‘can be beaten’

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 28, 2012 

— Other than a few iffy bus drivers, the U.S. men’s basketball team has had a peaceful journey on the way to London.

The U.S. swept through a series of exhibition games against most of its key Olympic opponents, going 5-0. The team opens for real in round-robin play Sunday against France (9:30 a.m. Eastern). France features six NBA players, including Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, but is ranked only No. 12 in the world.

Anyone familiar with coach Mike Krzyzewski knows he is fretting right about now, though.

“It will be tougher to win in 2012 than it was in 2008,” said Coach K, the Duke head basketball coach who is directing the Olympic team for a second time after winning the 2008 gold medal. “We have to prepare very hard. We know we can be beaten.”

Chris Paul, Coach K’s starting point guard, said he and his teammates have talked about what sort of NBA record this 2012 Olympic team would have if it played a regulation NBA season.

Paul figures no worse than 80-2 would be about right. When asked how many games this squad would lose in that hypothetical season, Paul said, laughing: “I don’t know, what do you think? Maybe one or two. Everybody can’t be off on the same night: Not on this team.”

So Krzyzewski’s players are confident, and that’s understandable. But they also have bought into Krzyzewski’s team-defense principle, which is a large part of why they have gone 54-1 in Coach K’s tenure as the national team’s head coach.

“To a man, they’ve said whatever you want, I’ll do,” Krzyzewski said. “They get along great. They want to listen. All this stuff about big egos and all that – they do have big egos because they’re good. But it doesn’t supersede the U.S. ego or the team ego, which is what you want.”

Krzyzewski knows that these Olympics have a high risk/low reward ratio for him. He’s already coached a team that has won gold in 2008. He’s already said he won’t coach the team after these Olympics. So if a loss is the last thing people remember about Krzyzewski’s Olympic tenure, that won’t be good.

“The two advantages this team has is that we are very athletic and we have great quickness,” Krzyzewski said.

The weakness is obvious – a lack of true centers. Tyson Chandler is the starter and Anthony Davis is the No.2, but he rarely plays. The injuries to Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh changed the way Team USA will play more than the ones to Derrick Rose or Dwyane Wade did. Krzyzewski said he will simply play the hand he has been dealt.

“If you don’t have an ace,” Krzyzewski said, “you have to play a king.”

When Chandler gets into foul trouble – and he often does – Krzyzewski has had to cobble together a lineup with no real center. He will use LeBron James anywhere in such a lineup – Coach K said LeBron is the most unique player in basketball in that he can play all five positions well – and count on team rebounding.

As for that bus problem, Krzyzewski said: “So far we’ve been lost on every one of our bus trips, so right now it’s been very chaotic. Literally we’ve had four (bus rides), and we’ve been lost on every stage.”

Krzyzewski has joked about the buses several times. But you can bet somewhere that somebody in London has been getting chewed on for losing the U.S. team.

As for the more important stuff, Krzyzewski has once again seamlessly made the transition from coaching college players to pros, his players said.

“I’ve never been around a guy who could motivate you like that,” said U.S. player Andre Iguodala of Coach K. “It’s usually with a speech and an analogy. He connects with us through past players. He knows who our role models are. So with our generation, if you just mention the name “Michael Jordan’ you pretty much get a reaction. Guys really tune in. He’ll talk about Jordan from the 1992 Olympics and the history of the game. We have some guys who think they’re better than Michael Jordan, so they’re going to tune in as well.”

It’s interesting that Krzyzewski motivates in part with examples drawn from a former Tar Heel, isn’t it? When asked a question by one reporter Friday about the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, he said: “I don’t want to talk about Duke and Carolina. I’m the U.S. coach right now. I’ll study them (UNC) when we play them in February and March. God love ‘em, and God love Duke. We’re brothers in war.”

Much like he does with ACC opponents, Coach K has taken pains to show respect to every team in the tournament, praising every coach and numerous players on each team highly. Since he was a “Dream Team” assistant at the 1992 Olympics, Krzyzewski said, the game has advanced tremendously.

That’s the primary reason Krzyzewski said he thinks it will be harder to win in 2012 – other teams have far more good players. There are 39 NBA players in the Olympic tournament, and only 12 of them play for the U.S.

This Olympic tournament won’t be a romp for the U.S. Krzyzewski promises that. Other than that, he’s not promising anything.

“I expect us to play hard every possession and play with enthusiasm,” he said. “And then we’ll see what happens.”

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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