I was luck enough to be part of Ed Cooley’s staff for the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, along with Kevin Willard and Mike Martin. It was an unbelievable experience, resulting in our team taking home the bronze medal. I’ve summarized my notes from the trip below.

  • The challenge is unique. Pulling together a team to compete in an important event with literally just one week of practice is not easy. As coaches we invest a lot in building a team and a program over time – and getting better over the course of a long season by making the necessary adjustments. With one week of preparation and a group of guys who for the most part have not played together before, you simply can’t prepare the same way. The checklist you have for preparation has to be pretty small.
  • Ed Cooley was brilliant in his approach. First of all, he gave a lot of responsibility to Kevin, Mike and myself and encouraged us to take ownership. Kevin was in charge of all sideline out of bounds situations, Mike had all baseline out of bounds sets, we handled the subs and rotations, etc. Ed constantly told us “we are all coaching this team” and that I think helped him not feel overwhelmed at times with the task at hand and trying to do too much. There was certainly a lot of pressure in coaching a USA Basketball team that for the first time was selected just from one league. He had no ego about being a head coach which is really impressive. Watching Mike and Kevin in action as “assistants” was great – both clearly have the presence of a head coach and the ability to connect with players quickly.
  • We focused a lot on basic offensive stuff and relied on the players instincts. We put in 3 simple offensive actions as opposed to set plays and emphasized spacing and timing to put our guys in position to be able to make the plays they were comfortable making. Most of the set action we ran came out of our basic flow, but we did get pretty specific in the options we wanted to get certain positions shots on certain areas of the floor. After a couple of days I was amazed at how good our flow was offensively and how quickly our guys were picking things up. By the end of the week we had a number of different actions or sets to get specific shots, and our guys picked all of it up. Ed really sees the game one or two steps ahead on the offensive side as far as making adjustments and putting his players in the best position to score.
  • It was harder on the defensive side. There really wasn’t enough time to establish much of a defensive approach or system. That usually takes weeks and weeks to teach and develop. We focused a lot on ball screen coverage because we knew we were going to see a lot of that in Peru. But really we had to rely a lot on guys basketball instincts and how they had been taught with regards to help side and rotations. The guys had to react to the ball and know the personnel on the floor to become a cohesive unit on defense. We weren’t trying to build a team to win a championship in 6 months, we were trying to win a gold medal in two weeks.
  • It literally was men against boys. The starting back court for Venezuela was two guys who were 35+ and had been playing professionally for almost 15 years each. Luis Scola is 39 and played 10 years in the NBA. Most of our guys were 19-21 and they were playing against seasoned pros on every team. The physical difference was noticeable every game.
  • The culture of Big East basketball is really impressive. That stood out to me. You could tell that these kids were being coached the right way and come from really solid basketball cultures. There was no ego whatsoever. No one showed an ounce of selfishness. Obviously Coach Cooley and his approach had something to do with that. But you could tell it was natural for everyone to sacrifice for the greater good of the team. It was impressive to be a part of and says a lot about Big East basketball to me.
  • It was like being in a basketball laboratory for 2 1/2 weeks in the summer. Watching other national teams play. Learning from the kids in practice and how they respond to being coached. Sitting in the conference room at PC in between practices for hours and talking about offense, defense, mentality and personnel with 3 great coaches. It was really stimulating and a great opportunity to learn.
  • Observing the relationship that Ed and Kevin have with their own players was really impactful. Both guys are clearly in charge and have earned respect but can easily let their guard down and be one of the guys to connect with their players. Seeing the balance of accountability and personality up close was terrific. It speaks to their ability but also to the level of time and investment you need to put in to truly get the most out of your guys.
  • Mike Martin really thinks the game and has a great feel for offensive adjustments. In one of the best in-game moments for us, Mike told Ed to call a time out in the 4th quarter of a tie game against the Dominican Republic when we had a baseline out of bounds situation. He told Ed “I’ve got you” and Ed called time out and gave Mike the board in the huddle (interestingly, Mike thought we still had 3 time outs left with one that had to be called before the 2:00 mark or we would lose it, but that wasn’t the case. We had used that time out early in the second half, and only had 2 left – I remember saying to Kevin Kurbec “This play better work””). Ed was great, turning the huddle over to Mike, and Mike drew up a set that was executed perfectly. Colin Gillespie hit Alpha Diallo with a sweet bounce pass for a lay-up. We took the lead and never looked back, going on a 25-7 run to secure the Bronze. A really cool example of Ed’s lack of ego as a head coach and Mike’s ability to command a huddle and see the game.
  • 5 games in 5 days is a monster. It’s not something we are ever really faced with (well done Kemba/UConn 2011), and it is not easy physically or mentally, keeping in mind we only had 12 players on the team.
  • Scouting and preparation was a little different. We had some games for each of the teams from earlier this year in World Cup qualifying, but the rosters and in some cases the coaches were even different. So there wasn’t a lot of great film to watch. And FIBA controls the film of the games you play in the Pan Am Games (I’m not sure why), and usually we didn’t get film of the games we played until we arrived at the arena the following day. We were able to scout the games live which was great. Sitting and watching national teams play FIBA rules for a full day was a lot of fun.
  • The FIBA game is a better game. It really is. It’s much more appealing to watch. I am convinced that the NCAA should adopt FIBA rules, and it still makes no sense to me that we play with different rules in our country at every level of the game (shot clock, no shot clock, different 3 point lines, quarters, halves – how does that make sense?). Playing 4 quarters, with the bonus after 5 fouls being reset at the end of the quarter makes the game so much more attractive. There is an emphasis on not fouling because every foul after the 4th one is an automatic 2 free throws. The bonus resets after 10 minutes, so you don’t get those long slogs where two teams are beating each other up and they shoot free throws for the better part of the last 14 minutes of a half. The flow of the game is much better (I know the NCAA would have to figure out TV time outs, but c’mon is it really that hard?).
  • I love the 24 second shot clock and the reset to 14 on a second possession. I’m convinced we should be playing with 24 at all levels. The argument that younger kids can’t handle it doesn’t hold water with me. It will force the kids and the coaches to learn how to play, rather than reset all of the time and look to the sideline to see what play to run. We’d have to teach from a young age offensive keys like spacing, ball movement and skill development that would produce a better feel for the game. The ball movement in the FIBA game is incredible and it’s something that’s lacking in our game.
  • No live ball time outs also makes the game flow a lot better, and it’s something I think we need to adopt. It definitely takes some getting used to. If you are going to call time out after the other team scores (you can only call time out when you have the ball and the ball is not in play), you have to do it right away. The idea of pushing the ball up the court to see if you get a good early look and then calling time out is not an option. And you can’t really count on offense/defense subs late in a game. Your best offensive players also have to be able to guard, or you have some tough decisions to make. You are also only allowed two time outs in the final two minutes of the game. Your team has to know how to handle themselves without your help.
  • In general I’m convinced the FIBA rules help develop more well-rounded players – players who have to learn how to read the game and react. You can’t really have too many specialists. It’s 5 guys on the floor who know how to play.
  • It is incredible how physical the international game is. It makes a Big East game look like middle school CYO. Seriously, the contact on the ball and the screening are areas of FIBA basketball that I think need to be cleaned up. It was a big adjustment for our guys to get comfortable with. You just simply had to play through everything and never expect to get a whistle.
  • FIBA officials give out technical fouls pretty liberally for any emotional, demonstrative body language. And I like it. If you react by stomping your feet or jumping up and yelling with any sort of hand display you are getting stuck. I’ve long felt that college coaches have gotten away with too much bad behavior on the sidelines, and I’d love to see it get cleaned up. In a FIBA game you simply can’t react emotionally or show up the official in any way. That was an adjustment for all 4 of us on the bench.
  • The Pan Am games are very interesting. Some of the athletes were gold medal winners from previous olympics trying to qualify again. You’d get on the elevator and talk to a guy who worked as a consultant at Ernst and Young but also happened to be one of the best badminton players in the world, trying to qualify for Tokyo. Our roommate was the head coach of USA Table Tennis and he talked to us about how he was hired to establish the program in our country. Just so many really interesting stories, not to mention interesting sports.
  • Lima was an interesting place to hold the games. Everyone stayed in the village that was built for the games, with tiny dorm rooms and one big cafeteria where everyone ate. The food got old in a hurry. And the competition venues were generally 45-60 minutes away. Traffic in Lima is brutal. It was like a game of Frogger every time we got on a bus. So there really wasn’t an opportunity to go watch other athletes compete. The logistics made it really difficult. We didn’t get to see much of Peru.
  • The atmosphere in the arena was electric. The passion these countries have for their national teams is very cool, and they were singing and chanting and rooting their guys on. But they were also very respectful and cheered for good basketball. Most of the fans were fascinated by our players and American basketball, asking for photos and autographs before and after all the games. The energy in the building was noticeable.
  • The Big East deserves a ton of credit for the experience they provided for the players and coaches. It was basically the league that handled all of the logistics for everyone involved, not USA basketball. So all of the details were handled by Stu Jackson, Brianna Weiss and others at the league office. They took a lot of pride in making it a first class experience for everyone and that wasn’t always easy.
  • Staying in tiny dorm rooms with no televisions made for some great late night discussions. We also showed a couple of Big East coaches how Netflix works and turned them on to Ozark. Seemed to be a big hit before bed every night.
  • Argentina is the real deal. They had 6 players and 3 starters who played on their Olympic team in Rio in 2016. The way they move the ball is brilliant to watch. I’d love to spend a week in Argentina at one of their basketball academies and learn how they teach the game to their younger teams. They all seem to be instilled with terrific basketball instinct. No matter what we tried to do, they never skipped a beat. They just played. One of the most impressive teams I’ve ever watched up close.
  • It was great to get to know our kids up close. It was a good reminder that the stuff that you read about kids when they are being recruited and playing for other teams doesn’t tell the whole story. They might be the stars of your favorite college team, but they are really just young kids – fun to be around, impressionable, and eager to learn. I was really impressed with the kids from all the Big East programs.
  • One of the best compliments we got came from the coaching staff of the Dominican Republic after we beat them in a great bronze medal game. He said “putting a team like that together in just two weeks, with all of those young guys, and winning a bronze is really impressive.”
  • In 2015 Mark Few coached an all-star team of college guys from all over the country – a team that featured 5 guys who would play in the NBA – to a bronze medal in Canada. Jay Wright and Tom Izzo both coached teams of college all-stars in the Pan Am Games and failed to medal. I know we are used to winning gold in the U.S., but winning the bronze was hard, and it really was quite an achievement for our group.
  • Representing the country – that’s a pretty powerful thing. It didn’t really hit me until we got to Lima and the games started. There were almost 6,500 of the best athletes from different countries all around the Americas. If you ever get the privilege of putting USA on your chest you certainly feel it. I just felt overwhelmed with the feeling of how lucky I was to be a part of it.
  • The medal ceremony was pretty special. Seeing the kids with huge smiles on their faces and bronze medals around their necks was really cool. For the rest of their lives they’ll have a bronze medal they won representing the US in international competition. Not bad.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *