USA Basketball AmeriCup Team Emphasizing Defense As Key To Success
Highly regarded as one of basketball’s elite defensive experts, USA Basketball Men’s AmeriCup Team head coach Jeff Van Gundy knows that he’ll need to lean on his bread and butter for the team to be successful.
Van Gundy has made it abundantly clear to the players at training camp in Houston that defensive intensity is critical to avoiding underperformance. After being selected as head coach of the teams that will compete in the FIBA AmeriCup and FIBA World Cup Qualifying games, Van Gundy studied relentlessly where USA Basketball has faltered in the past.
In evaluating every loss the team has suffered dating back all the way to 1990, Van Gundy found an overwhelmingly common denominator.
“Most of those times, the defense has faltered them,” Van Gundy said. “We need to be committed there to start it out.”
The AmeriCup roster is loaded with physical players who are capable of playing hard-nosed defense, whether it be on the perimeter, in penetration or in the paint. USA Basketball Men’s National Team head coach Gregg Popovich -- a defensive guru in his own right -- agreed with Van Gundy that the importance of defense is paramount.
“USA Basketball has been hugely successful because they’ve understood that defense is going to have to be the key,” Popovich said. “They understand that every team across the globe can score and shoot and play and pass. It would be impossible to even think about winning without great defense. It’s been a building block of USA Basketball.”
It’s no secret to Van Gundy, Popovich or USA Basketball staff that it’s unlikely that the team can achieve perfectly fluid offensive chemistry after playing together for a little more than a week. The short turnaround is another huge reason why a dedication to defense will be key.
“If you’re going to be short on prep time, you’re probably not going to be a great offensive team,” Van Gundy said. “You have to build your team around defense, rebounding and helping your players do what they do best.”
Enabling his players to play to their strengths is a frequently echoed theme of Van Gundy’s practices, but he always maintains consistency about how he envisions his team playing. At one point during a practice, he asked if any of his shooting guards considered offensive rebounding to be a strength of theirs.
“It depends,” one guard finally answered after a long pause.
“That doesn’t give me a great deal of confidence, but play to your strengths,” Van Gundy said dryly to a few smiles. “Either work the boards or get back on defense. Don't stand around at the top of the key. Just play to your strengths.”
Van Gundy and the AmeriCup team have a tall task of fine-tuning the defensive approach in the coming days. After finishing up in Houston on Aug. 24, the team will train Aug. 25-27 in Montevideo, Uruguay, and will participate in the AmeriCup Group C preliminary round games Aug. 28-30 in Montevideo.
Executing sound defense and playing to the players’ strengths will be two major factors for the team’s success.
“We’ll never get beat if we don’t beat ourselves,” Van Gundy said during a tense full-court five-on-five drill one day in practice. “We’re not going to be dumb and beat ourselves.”