SAN JUAN -- Tropical depression Danny and Tropical Storm Erika dampened and ultimately ended (one day early) the Tuto Marchand Cup held at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente here in Puerto Rico’s capital. The five teams that played in the Cup are among the 10 teams that will play in the upcoming Olympic qualifier for FIBA’s Americas region in Mexico City. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic and host Puerto Rico used the round-robin Cup to fine-tune rotations and decide last cuts before going to Mexico, where 10 teams will fight for two slots left for the Americas for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is entrenched as USA Basketball’s head coach through Rio, and there's no indication that Louisville's Rick Pitino would be a leading candidate to replace Coach K. So the 62-year-old Pitino offered to coach Puerto Rico’s national team for free, betting that the Puerto Ricans give him his best chance to go to Rio and enjoy the Olympic experience of coaching against the best players and coaches in the world.
The transition to FIBA basketball was not smooth for Pitino. He opted to build a staff made up largely of his Louisville assistants without seasoned Puerto Rican assistants who possess deep knowledge of FIBA in the Americas, to better transfer Pitino's defensive DNA to the national team. However, pressure defenses and matchup zones are easily dealt with in FIBA; teams can place four and sometimes five outstanding ball handlers and shooters on the court at the same time. Louisville may see a team like that once or twice every season.
As a result, in the Pan American Games recently held in Toronto, Pitino suffered 33- and 32-point losses in his two opening games, the worst defeats in the Pan Am Games in Puerto Rican history. Puerto Rico is one of five countries in the world where basketball is the most popular sport, and the last time the island played in the Olympics was 2004, and the coach of the 12 Magníficos is faced with higher expectations perhaps than any other public figure on the island. By the third game in Toronto, Pitino adjusted his defense to reflect his new reality.
In Mexico City, the teams Puerto Rico has to beat will have deep rotations ready to counteract Pitino’s preferred defensive tactics. Take Brazil, for example. Coach Rubén Magnano -- a future FIBA Hall of Fame coach, and it will be a test of the wisdom of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame when officials weigh his credentials -- can have five 3-point shooters on the court when he opts for slightly smaller lineups. Rafa Hettsheimeir, who will not play in Mexico, is a legitimate 3-point shooting center.
Magnano wisely understood that in FIBA’s new qualifying system for its World Cup of Basketball and the Olympics, NBA players will not be available before the major tournaments take place. So when Raulzinho Neto signed his NBA deal with the Utah Jazz, he was instantly off the national team (for the time being). Magnano is focused on creating a select team out of 40-odd players who would be available to compete in the six qualifying windows for the Olympics or the World Cup. Augusto Cesar Lima, now playing for Murcia in Spain’s Endesa League and a future NBA player, was the team’s MVP in Toronto. However, true to Magnano's approach, everyone contributes and every player fills out the stat sheet. Vitor Benite is an excellent combo guard who also could thrive in certain roles in the NBA, where he would strictly be played at the point.
Mexico had high hopes after making a World Basketball Championship for the first time in 40 years, led by former NBA and current Real Madrid PF/C Gustavo Ayón. Internecine fights at the federative level and government cutbacks have made coach Sergio Valdeolmillos' job so much more difficult. Milwaukee Bucks guard Jorge Gutiérrez joins the team after skipping the Pan Am Games, but Mexico is nursing many injuries, including rugged power forward Héctor Hernández. The Olympic qualifying format is relentless -- to make it to the gold-medal game, you must play 10 40-minute games in 13 days. That format, by the way, will collide with Pitino’s preferred defensive style. He will be forced to modify it, through player injury or exhaustion. How, and when, will he?
Argentina brought two of its stalwarts -- Luis Scola and Andrés “Chapu” Nocioni, who are both 35 and at the end of their careers. Coach Sergio Hernández will rely on them to score and set the physical tone with an intensity that the new generation of players, he hopes, will emulate. The next generation is headed by point guards Facu Campazzo and Nicolás Laprovíttola. Campazzo is often compared to Dallas Mavericks and Puerto Rico guard José Juan Barea because of his size and feistiness, although that label does not do Campazzo justice. Laprovíttola is a less-heralded but very smart guard who will play with Lietuvos Rytas in Lithuania’s LKL next season -- his first European experience.
Anything less than a berth in Rio will be a tough blow to Argentina, a country justifiably proud of its basketball achievements that desperately wants to continue to be relevant in world competitions. Hernández would love to see young players like 20-year-old Gabriel Deck, who shone in FIBA World Championships at the youth level, and 22-year-old shooting guard Nicolás Brussino contribute above expectations in Mexico. Argentina will likely be outrebounded in the tournament, so it needs to be sharp from the perimeter and with its ballhandling and decision-making.
Cuba is in dire need of resources and international exposure. The financing needed to develop basketball is not a priority on the island. At least the national federation is beginning to allow its players to play professionally in Uruguayan and Argentinian leagues. The federation clings to some old habits that need urgent reform, like the country itself.
Panama's rebirth has begun, under federation president Jair Peralta, a former national team point guard. Panama held its first Copa Latina four-nation invitational in 16 years and is relaunching a six-team league in mid-September, and Panama is making sure that basketball’s business, operations and media exposure match its popularity in the isthmus nation. Trevor Gaskins will lead this team, now that he seems to have left behind a series of untimely injuries. Coach David Rosario has had the longest preparation period of any of the 10 teams in Mexico City -- Panama first practiced in the first week of June. Panama brings its veterans, some of them aging, for one last battle as a group.
Uruguay always punches above its weight, but is always the Sisyphus of the Americas. The rotation is always a man or two short, so Uruguay usually becomes exhausted by the grueling format after advancing out of the first round. The Charrúas have lost an incredible 29 second-round games in a row in hemispheric play. When the federation could not afford insurance for Esteban Batista’s Chinese Basketball Association contract, and Jayson Granger pulled out with a back injury, most Uruguayans felt the usual queasiness about their prospects. But Argentinian coach Adrian Capelli and young players like 22-year-old shooting guard Bruno Fitipaldo, 23-year-old power forward Mathias Calfani and 21-year-old backup point guard Luciano Parodi give Uruguay hope of upsetting far more heralded teams. The team played Argentina and Brazil toe-to-toe in recent exhibitions in the run-up to Mexico.
The Dominican Republic could have easily been considered a favorite for one of the two Olympic berths if Al Horford, Karl Towns and Luis Montero had been available. Coach Kenny Atkinson has quickly evaluated his personnel and found a productive way to bring out the best in a team with outstanding shooters and ball handlers who space the floor and have the athleticism to get to the basket with dribble penetration. Opponents with disciplined half-court defenses and an emphasis on stopping the Dominicans’ fast break can make Atkinson’s team execute long possessions in the half court -- a skill the team has yet to master.
Venezuela coach Néstor “Che” García -- another Argentinian; the country has so many outstanding coaches -- has wisely prepared a team to his liking, more in tune with FIBA play than the NBA style that Venezuelan fans and the Venezuelan league prefer. The Vinotinto took Spain to the limit, losing at the buzzer in a recent exhibition against the Gasol brothers and their world-class teammates. García is philosophically similar to México’s Valdeolmillos and hopes to replicate México’s approach to a gold medal in the last Americas competition FIBA held, in 2013 in Caracas.
Pitino may have liked his chances with a downgraded Brazil, Argentina and the Dominican Republic. Like most coaches, he wishes he could count on some players who backed out of playing for their national squad, like forward/center Ricky Sánchez, who can spread the defense as a legitimate 7-footer who is also a 3-point threat. Puerto Rico will be undersized, will work hard to deflect balls and ruin the timing and scoring of opposing offenses, and will hope to gang-rebound and have enough transition offense to stay in games or build a lead. Point guard Carlos Rivera, guard/forward Danny Vassallo and sharpshooting 38-year-old ageless vet Larry Ayuso are some of the best free throw shooters in the tournament. If Puerto Rico has the lead at the end of games and opponents try to cut the lead by fouling, this trio will close the game, as they have done already twice here in San Juan, against Brazil and the Dominican Republic. It will be interesting to see how Barea fits into a new reality where he is not needed to carry the offensive role, and where he will first be evaluated by his contributions on defense. Ayuso understood that dynamic, and Pitino rewarded him with a spot in the rotation.
The cloud that will hover over Mexico and the rest of the Americas is the birth of a basketball power that we first glimpsed in San Juan: Canada. Solid existing infrastructure and coaching -- and the immigration of hoops-loving populations at the same time that basketball took hold in Canada through the establishment of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise -- have led to the development of a generation of players who aim to be at the top of the basketball world. Canadian entries into U.S. AAU tournaments have developed chemistry and fearlessness that make players like Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins fear nothing and no one. At the Tuto Marchand Cup, decorated intimidators like Argentina’s Nocioni and Scola put the young Canadians to the test, and they did not back down. After a few incidents where they ended up on the losing end of the whistle in physical play, the Canadians adjusted as if they had been playing FIBA hoops for a long while. The Canadians’ poise -- as much as their athleticism, skill and depth -- was most impressive here in San Juan, and a harbinger of what may be Mexico's best team ever, although coach Jay Triano uses every opportunity to tamp down such talk.
Triano played in two Olympics and has assembled a staff led by Carleton University’s Dave Smart, who is in charge of the defense and who has developed a young point guard named Philip Scrubb, the first top player with NBA potential shaped by the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA, the CIS. Carleton, in Ottawa, has won 11 of the last 13 CIS championships, and Scrubb could become living proof to Canadian youngsters that they do not have to leave the country to reach the NBA. The rest of the coaching staff is made up of NBA assistants from the United States, who already have been or likely will be interviewed for head-coaching vacancies in the Association.
Steve Nash, general manager of Canada's men's national team, and the federation also have shown they understand how to prepare a team and move up in the FIBA rankings. Canada was already out of the World Cup of Basketball in Spain last summer, but knew that teams in the Cup would like to scrimmage against teams that were already out. Canada spent the money and effort to put together a national team made up by many of the young men who were here in San Juan (including nine with NBA contracts), and sent them on a 20-day, 11-game, four-city European tour with hostile crowds, local referees and top-flight competition. Few nations have such resources, but Canada does with Nash as chief fundraiser -- he must be Canada’s most effective cold caller. In San Juan, the Canadian team’s staff outnumber the players; in the rest of the world, only USA Basketball can afford to provide such support.
Early in the Tuto Marchand Cup, the Canadians had the best defensive and net efficiency of the five nations gathered, by far. Pitino and the rest of the Americas are now focusing on finding a way to beat this juggernaut, or avoid it until absolutely necessary. Pitino’s Boricuas will join the Canadians in Group B in the qualifying tournament in Mexico City, meeting on Sept. 4, the last day of the opening round. They may not meet again until the semifinals. The North is casting a gathering and menacing cloud over the rest of the Americas, and over Rick Pitino’s and Puerto Rico’s Olympic dreams.
Álvaro Martín is a play-by-play announcer in Spanish and in English for NBA and FIBA basketball. Follow his bilingual tweeting at @AlvaroNBAMartin.