As Preparations Conclude, Russia Awaits
Colorado Springs, Colorado
After reconvening at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and enduring five straight days of intense training, the 2014 USA Basketball 3x3 World Championship Teams finally are ready to bring together all of their experiences and skills and put them on display at the 2014 FIBA 3x3 World Championship in Russia, starting Thursday, June 5. The women open up competition on Thursday facing Hungary and Brazil, while the men will take on the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic on day one.
The teams departed from Colorado on June 2, arriving in Russia a few days ahead of the international championship in order to settle down, adjust to the time change, get a feel for the atmosphere and mentally prepare for the competition.
“I think both teams are both very seasoned,” said Joe Lewandowski, who trained both teams during their stay the USOTC these past few days.
“The women’s team has some high-level athletes, and their basketball IQ is really off the charts. You basically give them anything, and they’re adding five layers to it because they are that smart. The men’s team, what’s great is that they’ve played a lot of games together. They are so cohesive they know how to play together, and I know that’s going to benefit them well in Russia.”
Coming Together for the Red, White and Blue
The women’s team includes Cierra Burdick (Tennessee/Charlotte, N.C.), Sara Hammond(Louisville/Mt.Vernon, Ky.), Jewell Loyd (Notre Dame/Lincolnwood, Ill.) and Tiffany Mitchell (South Carolina/Charlotte, N.C.).
All four are NCAA Division I basketball players at some of the most highly recognized basketball programs in the nation. Amongst the four, you can find accolades such as All-America honors, All-Final Four, Southeastern Conference (SEC) Player of the Year, SEC Champion and many, many more.
They are quite simply, a fantastic group, coached by some of the best minds in collegiate hoops, and are as aware of this game as any top-level athlete in the game.
Yet, one thing is worth noting. They all play at different schools, so they are used to playing against each other.
Burdick and Mitchell play in the SEC, while Hammond and Loyd used to face each other yearly when their schools were members of the Big East Conference.
Of course once the postseason arrives next year, it’s highly likely they will cross each other’s paths as each of their teams are well-known for making a deep postseason run every single year.
This time, however, they are not trying to keep each other from scoring, nor spending hours scouting each other’s weaknesses. They are not hoping for the girl on the other team to miss the shot, miss the rebound or turn the ball over. This time, they are putting their rivalries and schools aside in order to come through for the colors and the place that matters deeply to every single one of them: the USA.
“It’s definitely different,” said Burdick of playing with teammates that she used to call opponents.
“When we’re playing in the season, we’re praying that they miss. But I love having them on the squad for this. They bring so much to the table, so I’m excited to go to Russia and see what we can do. We’ve definitely grown closer. I look at these girls as my family now. I love these girls, they’re competitive, and they’re great basketball players.”
With the dynamic of their yearly interactions shaken up, these athletes instead have focused on becoming a team. Naturally, this has required and allowed them to take advantage of the skills each of them possesses; skills opponents are usually hoping to shut down.
“I think we all have strengths that help us win games,” said Hammond. “We have Tiff and Jewell that can shoot outside, but also take you inside, and we have Cierra, who’s pretty versatile. Hopefully my post game can bring some significance to the team as well.”
With so many options around, Hammond admits that it’s an incredible feeling to have them on her side, as their abilities have meshed well together and have began to create a powerful attack.
“To finally have them on my team is a plus and a positive for me, because I’ll take these three any day. I think we have better team chemistry now. Getting to know each other off the court is contributing to us playing better on the court.”
Mitchell agrees with Hammond. It’s a lot easier when her task during the game is to shoot while Hammond creates a screen for her, or having to feed Hammond the ball inside, instead of having to prevent her from getting to the basket.
“Playing against them is a lot harder,” said Mitchell with a smile in her face. “Joining forces is a lot easier and more fun. We just try to make the best plays possible.”
With the competition only a few days away, the women’s team is locked in and ready to get started. They have competed in big stages before; they know how to win.
Now, their goal is to bring back home that coveted gold medal, and add the title of world champions to their already lengthy and stellar resumes. They aren’t playing around.
“Our mentality has definitely changed,” said Loyd. “We want to go out there, compete and win. We’re going hard all the time, even if our coach tell us to take it easy, we go hard. We’re young, so this is what we want to do and this is what we love. We’re reading each other better, and it helps when you have people that want to win and have a high basketball IQ. You learn from each other. We want to win gold.”
Good Chemistry, Great Teammates
The men’s team includes members Thomas “Mack” Darrow (Newport, Calif.), Demetrius Miller (Flint, Mich.)Craig Moore (New York, N.Y.) and Jitim Young (Chicago, Ill.).
Experience is not lacking in this group either. Moore and Young played basketball at Northwestern, Darrow played at Princeton, and Miller played at Mott Community College and Metro State University in Denver.
They are a group that has played the game at a high-level for more than 10 years. They know how to be successful and are more than ready to face the challenges ahead.
For example, they faced a challenge few weeks ago, when their original fourth member, Arne Duncan, withdrew from the team.
They needed a fourth teammate, and they needed him fast. Cue Demetrius Miller.
If the way they have gelled with Miller, who officially joined the team on May 28, is any indication of how their performance in Russia will go down, then it’s safe to expect excellence.
“(Miller) is incredibly talented, so it’s been easy to incorporate him because he’s a basketball guy with a great basketball mind,” said Darrow about the inclusion of a new member so close to the FIBA 3x3 World Championship.
“He’s got a great willingness to learn and already has got a great rapport with all the guys on the team. He give us a dimension that we didn’t have, he’s so much faster. We had a lot of shooting but the ability to attack the rim, that’s something we were definitely missing, so I think that’s something that will serve us well over in Russia.”
For his part, Miller believes his addition was nothing more than adding a little extra to an already well made up team.
“It’s been fun working with these guys,” said Miller of quickly having to adapt to the team. “They run a different type of offense, so it’s been a good learning experience. We have a great shooter in Craig, a great driver in Jitim and a great big in Mack. It’s really just filling in and contributing to the team. We all love the game, so it’s about putting pieces together and just making it happen.”
Putting the pieces together for Miller has been easy, and it probably helped that three of the players were familiar with each other.
Moore and Young share a collegiate bond. Despite not playing together while at Northwestern (Young played from 2000-04, Moore from 2005-09), they still understand the way each of them will play as their school roots gives them a shared background of the plays and tactics.
Additionally, Moore actually coached Darrow at one point, when the former became a volunteer assistant coach for the Tigers in 2011, while the latter was still playing at Princeton.
With an undeniable knowledge of each other’s styles of play and their strengths and weaknesses, the preparations mostly have been about bringing it all together and having fun while doing it.
“It’s just been about getting good chemistry between the four of us,” Moore said. “I think we’ve accomplished that very well. These are really good friends now, and we’re going to play the game we love. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
A total of 35 countries will be represented in Russia. Forty-eight teams, 24 men and 24 women, will be participating at the 2014 FIBA 3X3 World Championship and the competition will be tough.
As training ends, both teams simply are hoping that what they have done will be enough to make it through and play for that gold medal.
“We’ve been working really hard,” said Young. “We are a confident group right now, and we’re going to go over there and work hard, do our best and play hard every possession.”
“If we go to Russia and just be ourselves, we’ll be fine.”