LIMA, Peru -- When USA Basketball asked NCAA conferences for a volunteer in fielding a men's team for the 2019 Pan American Games, the Big East was happy to oblige.
"We think it's an honor to play for the U.S.," Big East senior associate commissioner for communications John Paquette said from the Games' media center. "It's unforgettable."
Team USA opens its participation in Lima 2019 on Wednesday against the Virgin Islands in Pool A, then plays Venezuela on Thursday followed by Puerto Rico on Friday. The U.S. contingent will be sourced entirely from a single Division I conference in the Big East, and follows a pattern of thinking outside the box in an effort to win Pan Am gold for the first time since 1983.
Enter Providence's Ed Cooley, a self-described "Big East guy, born and bred," who was picked by the conference to coach Team USA because of his experience coaching national teams and his success that includes a string of five straight NCAA tournament appearances by Providence beginning in 2013-14. He brings to his staff a fellow Big East head coach in Seton Hall's Kevin Willard and a crosstown rival in Brown's Mike Martin.
"The Big East, we all know each other," Cooley said. "Both Kevin and I know the personnel of the team, so I think that's a big positive for us. It just gives us a little bit more synergy and continuity for a short preparation time in order to try to compete for these Pan American Games."
Cooley describes the Big East as "very aggressive and extremely physical," one of the most well-coached conferences in the country with versatility to spare.
"A lot of coaches recruit a lot of multi-positional guys, and that allows us to play a lot of different ways," he said. "I think it's very disruptive."
The U.S. has a history of putting together its Pan Am lineups with most everything but NBA players. Using AAU, military and college players, they won eight out of the first nine tournaments dating to the Games' 1951 debut. The exception was 1971 in Colombia, where the Americans used collegians exclusively for the first time but did not advance out of group play.
The last champion from the U.S. featured North Carolina teammates Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins with Georgia Tech's Mark Price and Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale -- among others. Jordan averaged a team-high 17.3 points a game. The Americans, however, faced deficits against Mexico, Brazil and host Venezuela before righting the ship on the way to the Pan Am gold in 1983.
Oddly, Team USA's gold drought began on home turf at the 1987 Games in Indianapolis. A 5-0 U.S. team was stunned by Oscar Schmidt's 46-point output in the gold-medal game against Brazil in front of a packed Market Square Arena.
Since, the team has experimented with players from college, the CBA and the former D League. The 2015 squad ranged in ages from 20-35 under Gonzaga's Mark Few and took home the bronze. Former NBA point guard Bobby Brown, then playing professionally in China, led the mix of seven collegians and five pros at 17.6 points per game as the U.S. finished with a 3-2 record in Toronto.
Though the 2019 team isn't as eclectic, it must hone what its coach calls "chemistry and ego."
"It's a credit to the staff bringing all these personalities together in a short period of time to try to compete for one common cause," Cooley said. "I think we're coming along. It's a daily process, when we compete against some of these teams that are going to practice for one, two, three years, They all know each other. That's the biggest challenge of USA Basketball is we don't know each other that well playing with one another versus playing against one another."
Not all Big East teams are here. Marquette and star guard Markus Howard are participating in their own summer tour. Still, the U.S. counts on a good pairing in 6-2 scorer Myles Powell of Seton Hall and 6-3 guard Collin Gillespie of Villanova, who will handle duties at the point.
"They've been a lot of fun to coach," Cooley said. "Collin Gillespie to me is one of the toughest guards in the country. He plays with such spirit, toughness. And Myles Powell to me is the best shooter in college basketball. It'll be hard-pressed to find somebody in college basketball that can do it better than him."
To erase rival sentiments for the time being, Cooley had the team over for a cookout before departing to Peru. It offered a chance to let his players splash in the pool and get to know each other away from the court. The group counts 10 collegians, including Providence 6-7 guard Alpha Diallo and 6-4 Creighton guard Ty-Shon Alexander. Two recent graduates from Big East schools who are trying out the pro ranks -- Butler product Tyler Wideman, a 6-8 forward, and 7-0 former Creighton center Geoffrey Groselle -- add size and experience to a team filled with good shooters.
For all of it to come together, Cooley said his team must limit opposing 3-pointers while converting its own and being disruptive.
"We are the youngest team competing in this tournament so we can't let other people's veteran stewardship overtake our youth and exuberance," he said. "So we've got to do a good job of knowing who we are, know what we want to do ... If we can do that, we'll give USA Basketball the opportunity to win a [Pan American Games] gold medal for the first time in 36 years."
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