Blasphemy at the World University Games
By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist
KAZAN, Russia – Something blasphemous is about to happen at these World University Games; something completely out of context and against the natural laws of the athletic universe.
Sometime Friday morning in the Athlete’s Village, Michigan coach John Beilein is going to sit down with Michigan State big man Adreian Payne and look at tape from Thursday night’s 94-60 United States win over Russian professional team Unics 2 of Kazan from the Russian Basketball League.
These representatives from two of college basketball’s superpowers are going to meet peacefully, seeking to find answers that can benefit both sides.
Michigan and Michigan State, two teams that try to tear the heart out of each other in the dead of Midwestern winters, are going to assist each other in the heat of a Russian summer.
What’s next? Is Mayweather going to dine with Pacquiao? Are Republicans going to play nice with Democrats? Is North Korea going to open its border to South Korea?
It’s a Big 10 détente, a long, long way from the deadening decibels of Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
“We’re going to sit down tomorrow, that’s for sure,” said Beilein, an assistant coach on Bob McKillop’ USA staff. “Adreian and I are going to figure out why he got in foul trouble today. I think he’s going to have to adapt to the way they’re going to call fouls here. I know this (meeting) sounds a little unique. You’ve got the Indiana guys and the Michigan State guy and a Michigan coach on this team. Sure, these are guys that we compete against. But it’s also USA.”
Is Sergio Garcia going to take lessons from Tiger Woods? Is Bill Belichick going to invite Rex Ryan to the Patriots’ training camp? Are Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova going clubbing together?
“We’ve got to make us all better,” Beilein said. “I’m sure if opposing coaches from the Big 10 were coaching my guys I’d like them to use this time to make my guys better. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
One of the best things about these international competitions is watching some of the best players and coaches from some of the best, most competitive college programs in the United States, put aside their conference rivalries and try to win a medal.
In Thursday’s exhibition game, played in front of a packed, expectant house of 6,000 at the Basket Hall, the host venue for the basketball tournament here, the United States team, which has been together for less than a week and had been in the country fewer than 48 hours, played together as if it had been together for years.
Head coach McKillop and his staff have pieced together a versatile group that looks more like a team than a bunch of college all-stars. If this were an NBA staff, they’d be drawing comparisons to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford for the way they’ve constructed this roster.
The U.S. has three-point shooting. It has a lockdown defensive point guard, Sean Kilpatrick, who changed the attitude of this game with his pressure on the Unics’ guards, turning a 27-25 second-quarter deficit into a 56-40 halftime lead.
The Americans have toughness inside and they have point guards, Spencer Dinwiddie and Yogi Ferrell, who can push the pace relentlessly.
“We really made versatility a point in our selection process,” McKillop said. “We wanted guys who can play interchangeable parts. Everyone on our roster was a go-to guy on their team, but realize that Luke Hancock did not start at Louisville and Will Sheehey didn’t start at Indiana. But they have terrific IQs. They’re very grounded young men. And they lay it on the line every time they step onto the court.”
In the selection process in Colorado Springs, the staff looked for players who were coachable, players who listened. Too many times on too many of the United States’ non-Dream Team international rosters, players haven’t listened. They thought their skills would be enough to carry them to gold.
This team is more experienced, a little older, more comfortable with who they are and what is expected of them.
“I told the players in the locker room, ‘It’s an enjoyable thing for us to coach you because you guys are enjoyable guys,” McKillop said. “The fortune is, these are 22-23-year-old guys who are accustomed to coaching. They have taken to coaching very well. They listen. They truly listen. They’re not entitled 17-18-year-olds who think they know everything. They’re listeners who want to be coached. They want to get better. That’s why they came here. They want to get better.”
Still, these players are accustomed to playing with a core group that has been together for two or three years. Hancock at national champion Louisville, Will Sheehey and Yogi Ferrell at Indiana, Payne at Michigan State and Doug McDermott at Creighton. This is a much different experience.
“It is a little bit different, but you know what, they’re such great players and they’re so good at reading the game and knowing the game that it all comes together really quickly,” said Hancock after the win in this “friendly” against what was essentially the Unics’ reserve team. “Like, I know A.P. (Payne) is going to be there to get the offensive rebound or get the dunk when I lob it up. Or he knows where I’m going to be on the three-point line. It’s easy when guys know how to play and everyone here really does.”
There’s something happening here, some kind of instant connection, some sort of magical chemical concoction that transcends conference rivalries or all-American egos. This isn’t an American team’s summer vacation. These players talk and play like veterans. They came here to win, not to posture. This is a team worth following.
“Everyone knows their role on this team,” Sheehey said. “It’s put together a certain way. It’s a good group of guys. Everybody’s unselfish. They move the ball. So it’s been very easy so far. No question, it’s been very fun.”
Sheehey is one of a group that Beilein calls “glue guys,” players who do what they’re asked and don’t fret about minutes or shots or touches.
“We have several glue guys who can play several different positions. We’ve been together just over a week,” Beilein said, “and we’re still trying to find what combinations work together well and who can guard who, etcetera. What Coach McKillop and Coach (Frank) Martin are doing with these players is going to help us win now, but it’s also going to help them next year and in the future.”
And that’s why Beilein is sitting down with Payne on Friday in a conference room in the Athlete’s Village, extending a peace offering in pursuit of a gold medal, before the summer ends and the players return home and Michigan and Michigan State become sworn enemies again.