Efforts of Jeff Van Gundy and Sean Ford Have USA in Strong Position Ahead of World Cup
The U.S. men already are qualified for the 2019 FIBA World Cup but face one more window of games later this month.
Jeff Van Gundy and Sean Ford are pointing fingers at each other. They’re each trying to give the other guy all the credit.
As the U.S. men prepare for the final window in 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifying later this month — having already qualified — both men have good reason to celebrate.
Ford, USA Basketball Men’s National Team director, credits the job Van Gundy, the U.S. head coach, has done in leading the team in the previous windows. Van Gundy, meanwhile, says the fundamental reason the team even had a chance to be successful was because Ford made smart choices in selecting players to be a part of the experience.
“I think, No. 1, the amount of effort Sean Ford invested in trying to put together a team that could win was incredible,” Van Gundy said. “It wasn’t just the evaluation of players but trying to get guys who wanted to compete. I think that was much harder than I expected.”
The U.S. will host Panama Feb. 22 and Argentina Feb. 25 at the home of the NBA G League Greensboro Swarm - the Fieldhouse at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex in Greensboro, N.C. It will be an odd few days of competition, because the USA and Argentina already have qualified for the 2019 FIBA World Cup and Panama already has been eliminated. So, there doesn’t seem to be much to play for or to motivate anyone.
Ford admits it is an unusual situation but says the results still can affect how teams are seeded in the 2019 FIBA World Cup of Basketball and who they will play against in the preliminary rounds of the tournament, which runs Aug. 31-Sept. 15 in China.
Reaching this point has been no small task for everyone involved. Five different 12-man teams have been assembled, and 46 different players have played a role in helping the U.S. qualify in the previous windows. The qualifying process began in November of 2017.
Four players who have played in previous qualifying windows are back with other hopefuls in Miami from Feb. 15-19 for training camp. The final team will be selected, and then it will have more training in Greensboro on Feb. 21 and 24 before the games.
“It is totally different for us,” Van Gundy said of this window and the unique circumstances. “We’ve been chasing this goal for the past 18 months and felt tremendous satisfaction because we are qualified, but it does present some challenges for this window in that we want to finish this process off strong and win. To do that, we’ve got to find the motivation to want to play and play well.
“I think you find motivated players, players who want to compete. We have four guys who played with us before and nine news guys, and hopefully we pick the right guys.”
The World Cup Qualifying Team has gone 8-2 in the previous windows with players such as Reggie Hearn, Xavier Munford, Cameron Reynolds and Travis Trice leading the way. Hearn has played in four of the five previous windows and was selected USA Basketball’s 2018 Male Athlete of the Year.
One unique part of the qualifying experience is that the players who participate know they’re unlikely to have a shot at actually representing their country in the FIBA World Cup. The best players for many countries are busy with their professional seasons during the qualifying windows and only end up participating in the World Cup itself.
Ford said he isn’t aware of any team that played at full strength for any World Cup Qualifying game.
That creates opportunities for players who still are striving to reach another level and continue their careers, such as Trice, a point guard for the NBA G League Austin Spurs.
“I’m trying to learn from the players I’m playing against,” Trice said. “Any time I go into a situation, I’m trying to learn and become a better player. So, playing against guys who play different than how we do in the States, I’m just trying to pick up and learn some of the things that they do and what makes them successful.”
Van Gundy said there have been numerous rewards for the hard work put into the process. A handful of players who have participated in the previous qualifying windows have signed NBA contracts, in part, because of what they showed while representing their country.
“In the end, it just goes back to Sean,” Van Gundy said. “Sean has picked the right guys, and the NBA I think has such respect for Sean that he tells them, ‘This is a good person who is a good player.’ I think they listen to his evaluation.”
Van Gundy said another big challenge is the realization that every team plays its absolute best when the USA steps on the court, because they want to be the team to knock off the world’s best. He said seeing players rise to meet that challenge has been inspiring.
“The other teams, their level of intensity still skyrockets when they see the USA Basketball logo across the chest of the uniforms,” Van Gundy said. “So, the intensity that other teams brought to normal national team games is high, but it rises to another level when you’re playing against the U.S.”