MANILA – The opponent names will become more recognizable for USA Basketball now. Nikola Vucevic awaits on Friday, Jonas Valanciunas on Sunday, and if the Americans keep progressing through this FIBA World Cup the challenges will only get tougher.
To that, they say this: Good.
Second-round play at the World Cup starts Friday, with a 32-team field to start the tournament now down to 16 contenders for the Naismith Trophy. The U.S. is one of eight teams with 3-0 records, and those are the teams that have the easiest path to the quarterfinals.
“There’s an immediate respect level from guys going against them in the NBA,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “The familiarity really helps as well. The hard part is when you go into a game and there’s a great player who these guys don’t know, and he’s got a last name with lots of letters, and you have to refer to him as No. 5 or whatever and our guys aren’t ready for how good this player is. That’s a huge challenge in this tournament.”
Not anymore. Nobody will need to Google most of the best players on the teams that made Round 2. Luka Doncic is headed there, along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dennis Schroder, Patty Mills, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Vucevic and Valanciunas — among others.
In Round 2, the U.S. plays Montenegro on Friday and Lithuania on Sunday.
“For us as a country, to get to play against the U.S. will be a huge thing,” said Vucevic, Montenegro’s best player. “We have to go out there and show our best … and enjoy that game.”
Joining the U.S. in Round 2 with 3-0 records out of group play are Slovenia, defending World Cup champion Spain, Canada, Germany, Serbia, the Dominican Republic and Lithuania. For those eight teams, the task is this simple: Win two games this weekend, and the quarterfinals are certain. Each could also lose one of their next two games and still advance.
Also in the second-round field are eight teams that advanced with 2-1 records: Montenegro, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico, Australia, Georgia, Brazil and Latvia.
The Americans are the only team in the tournament that have won every game so far by at least 27 points. Canada’s closest win margin so far is 26; Lithuania’s is 20.
“Nothing changes,” U.S. captain Jalen Brunson said. “The approach has to be the same. It’s almost the knockout stage, and we approach the game like it’s our last game every game. We’ve got to keep that same mentality. There’s just a lot more at stake now.”
There’s more than just the World Cup at stake, even.
Australia has already qualified for next year's Paris Olympics. All 15 remaining second-round teams are still in the mix to clinch an automatic berth in those games based on their finish here; two of the five Americas teams will get Olympic spots, two of the 10 European teams left will get them as well.
For those teams that keep winning, the Olympic spots will take care of themselves.
“Our goal, our first goal, was to win the group stage,” said Gilgeous-Alexander, Canada’s top player and one of two current All-NBA players in the tournament — Doncic, the Dallas star who leads Slovenia, being the other. “But we’re not done. We’re not satisfied. And we have five more games to try to go win.”
Canada is bidding for its first World Cup medal ever. There will be at least two teams on the medal podium that didn’t get there at the last World Cup in 2019; Spain — which has an 11-game World Cup winning streak — is still alive, but silver medalist Argentina didn’t qualify for this tournament and bronze medalist France was ousted in Round 1.
“Our goal for this season was to make it to the quarterfinals and then relax and see what happens,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said. “It’s going to be a hell of a challenge.”
As far as the various permutations go to advance, the U.S. doesn’t seem that interested in anything besides the most obvious path – win Friday, win Sunday and go into the quarterfinals unbeaten entering the win-or-else round.
“When you put this uniform on, losing’s not really an option,” U.S. guard Tyrese Haliburton said. “Every game holds real weight. It’s serious for us. We’re not looking at it as, ‘Oh, if we lose, we can still win it.’ It’s just about improving every game.”
Some of the most intriguing second-round matchups:
— Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico, Friday at Manila: Regional rivals and both probably need a win to keep realistic hopes of getting an automatic Olympic berth.
— Italy vs. Serbia, Friday at Manila: Italy has won the last two meetings, including a victory in Belgrade to go to the Tokyo Olympics (and knock Serbia out) and a win in last year's EuroBasket opening knockout stage.
— Slovenia vs. Australia, Friday at Okinawa: A rematch of the Tokyo Olympics bronze-medal game, won by Australia.
— Lithuania vs. U.S., Sunday at Manila: Lithuania's super-proud basketball history includes beating the Americans at the 1998 world championships (the U.S. had no NBA players because of a lockout) and at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
— Canada vs. Spain, Sunday at Jakarta: The upstart Canadians against the defending champions.