U.S. Men Face New Opportunities in Second Round of World Cup Qualifying
After the first round of qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup, the USA Basketball Men’s National Team has won five of six games and is tied with Brazil at the top of Group F.
Now comes the next challenge: three new opponents in home-and-home series. The U.S. faces Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia, with the first games set for Aug. 25 vs. Uruguay at Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas and Aug. 29 in Barranquilla, Colombia. Tickets for USA vs. Uruguay start at $25 and are available at unlvtickets.com and all upcoming World Cup Qualifying games will stream for free in the U.S. on FIBA Courtside 1891. The last two windows will follow in November and February.
The top three teams from Group F and Group E, plus the fourth-best team from both groups combined, will secure Americas berths in the 2023 World Cup set for Aug. 25-Sept. 10, 2023, in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
As the second round of qualifying begins, the obvious question is ‘when can the USA clinch a berth to the 2023 FIBA World Cup?’
As Sean Ford, USA Basketball Men’s National Team director, explained, “Seven of the remaining twelve FIBA Americas countries qualify for the 2023 World Cup. This is only our second time competing in this qualifying system, but it appears that eight or nine overall wins between the first and second rounds can put a country in the top three of your second-round pool which will guarantee advancement to the World Cup.”
If the USA can go 2-0 in August, that will put them at seven wins heading into the November window in which the U.S. will host Brazil and Colombia.
“We focus on one game at a time, but we were fortunate to qualify for the 2019 World Cup during window five,” Ford said. “Since our schedule this time has us playing two road games in the final window next February, it would be nice to follow the same path, but we are prepared for every scenario.”
Another consideration is that only one fourth place team will qualify. The team with the highest point differential (most points scored vs. points given up) will advance. Countries try to avoid this circumstance, but because points can play a significant factor in qualification, the goal is to win games by as many points as possible or keep losses close.
“We like our position,” Ford continued. “We’ve really handled the differences between the professional game in the United States and the FIBA game very well.”
Those contrasts come in different forms. Aside from the added physicality of the international game, the U.S. tends to field a younger roster than its opponents. FIBA qualifying windows often fall during the NBA season, which results in the U.S. going with NBA G League players and a different set for each two-game window.
One constant is the coaching. Throughout 2023 World Cup Qualifying, former Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen has coached every window. Ty Ellis and Othella Harrington, who were with Boylen in all three first-round windows, are also back. Miles Simon will support this team in an assistant coaching and scouting role.
“They’re relentless,” Ford said. “Their attention to detail, their focus and their commitment is extraordinary. Just the amount of teaching that needs to go into playing a different way.
“What works in the NBA and a 48-minute game doesn’t necessarily apply equally to the international game and a 40-minute game. It’s not easy to adjust people’s habits and that’s really what’s required. You have these elite basketball players and you’re trying to adjust some of their habits and to create a competitive advantage in the international game. It’s not easy and they’ve really done a good job of that.”
Steve Kerr, head coach of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, will coach the team at the 2023 World Cup and Olympic Games Paris 2024. Ford said Kerr is in “constant communication” about the qualifying team. Kerr even made sure Boylen was invited to a meeting of the national team staff in Las Vegas in July.
Juggling the roster is another tough task. Players sometimes are called up to the NBA from their G League teams or sustain injuries that takes them out of consideration or off the USA Basketball roster at the last minute. Dating back to 2019 World Cup Qualifying, 28 players have played in multiple windows as the U.S. has fielded 10 12-member teams.
In the first round, Ford pointed out the performances of Jordan Bell, Langston Galloway, David Stockton, Justin Jackson, Eric Mika, DaQuan Jeffries and Matt Ryan. Also contributing was Xavier Munford, who was added to the roster the week of practice before the last window due to a Stockton hand injury. After scoring just one point in an 83-75 win over Puerto Rico, Munford scored a game-high 24 points on 10-of-12 shooting to lead an 87-64 U.S. triumph over Cuba on July 4.
“It’s hard to mention every player, but everyone helps us,” Ford said. “We typically play between 10 and 12 players in the first half of every game. Xavier Munford, we call him on Sunday and ask him if he wants to play ... and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll play.’ ... You just love some of those stories.
“As easy as it is to talk about the challenges we have in not having consistent players and things like that, we choose to celebrate the accomplishments and the commitments that players make to help us qualify.”
In addition to the U.S. and Brazil, each with 5-1 records, Group F consists of Uruguay and Mexico (each 4-2), Puerto Rico (3-3) and Colombia (2-4).
First-round windows didn’t require as extensive travel as the second round will. This window calls for a Las Vegas-to-Colombia trip. Other sets of games include hosting Brazil (Nov. 11) and Colombia (Nov. 14), and road games at Uruguay (Feb. 23) and Brazil (Feb. 26). The Latin America countries have vocal home crowds.
“It’s a real challenge,” Ford said. “We use the words ‘hostile crowd,’ and it doesn't mean it’s inappropriate, but they’re very passionate about their team. And more than anything, it’s a fun part of the challenge.”
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California.