RIGA, Latvia -- Outside the Arena Riga press room, after the U.S. suffered a stunning 79-74 loss in the quarterfinals of the FIBA U19 World Championships, one of the Russian-speaking writers stopped me and said while smiling, "This has to be really humbling for you guys, no?"
I think he meant
Russia was a mediocre squad with only one marginal pro prospect, guard Dmitry Kulagin, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds, and outplayed everyone on the U.S. roster. The Russians were just 3-3 coming into Friday, and a bookie I met at the arena had them as a 10-to-1 underdog in the quarterfinals.. Gold or bronze (if they lost to Jonas Valanciunas' Lithuania club in the semis) were the only reasonable outcomes for the Americans. The best-case scenario is now fifth place, which will be no consolation at all.
The post-game response from U.S. coach Paul Hewitt was to congratulate the Russians for their series of long-range daggers (they went 12-of-29 on threes, while the U.S. was 0-of-9) and take the blame for the failure to defend the perimeter. It was up to the NBA evaluators in attendance -- the guys who are constantly asked to weigh the merits of U.S. prospects against those from the rest of the world -- to serve up the brutally honest assessments.
"I didn't sense any urgency out of [the Americans]," one GM said, referring to the first half in which the U.S. fell behind 40-30. "I don't know if they took it seriously -- it was almost like an AAU game. Did you see how much the Russian kids cared after they won?"
"They need to know that the rest of the world is always ready [for the U.S.]," another GM said, shaking his head. "They needed to care more about this -- I mean, I saw a couple of guys come into the hallway after the game to get girls' phone numbers. What does that say about you?"
The U.S. team did, in its defense, put together a fine run to open this tournament, going 5-0 before losing to Croatia and then Russia. Florida forward Patric Young held his own against Valanciunas in the second round, and UConn guard Jeremy Lamb had scoring performances that suggest he'll be an All-America candidate next season. But why -- beyond the urgency part -- did the Americans fall short here in Riga? Part of the problem lies not in who made the trip to Latvia, but who didn't.
The talent level in college basketball in 2011-12 will be off the charts, but few of the game's stars were willing to spend their summer abroad, or encouraged by their coaches to participate in the U19. According to a source, USA Basketball put out 49 invites for Latvia and only had 20 players say yes. That rate (around 40 percent) is normal for a U19 trip, but in this case, it left them without a horde of potential stars.
North Carolina had four players say no (Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo), as did Kentucky (Anthony Davis, Mike Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague). Duke had three (Quinn Cook, Austin Rivers and Josh Hairston). Big men with NBA futures such as Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, UCLA's Josh Smith, Memphis' Adonis Thomas and high-schooler Andre Drummond also passed. That left the team with a weakness at point guard, only one takeover scorer in Lamb, and one elite post presence -- Young, who openly wondered earlier in the week, "Why would anyone not want to be a part of this experience?"
The U.S. had enough talent to win this tournament if it gelled properly ("We had a very good team," Hewitt said), but it's hard not to think about what might have been. Especially when many of those players are killing time in meaningless pickup games at shoe-company camps. One D-I coach I contacted -- not on the U.S. staff -- speculated that paranoia in the coaching community leads to the low participation. "Guys want to keep total control over their players," he said. "They don't want anyone else getting in their [players'] ears."
One scout in attendance blamed schools' manipulation of the APR to fit one-and-done prospects. "If you have guys who might go one-and-done, then you try as hard as you can to get them into summer school," he said. "It's not really for their sake, but so they're in good enough academic standing that it doesn't hurt you when they leave early in the spring."
The only freshman-to-be who came to Latvia was Arizona State-bound point guard Jahii Carson, who's not a one-and-done candidate, and was too green to be playing major minutes at this level. He mostly remained on the bench behind Memphis' Joe Jackson, who has 26 assists against 27 turnovers in seven games. He has amazing quickness that lets him get to the rim and draw fouls, but he still struggles to create shot opportunities for others. That's something that new Tigers assistant Damon Stoudamire will no doubt help him with next season, but against Russia, Jackson had just two assists in 28 minutes.
The Americans' offense devolved into isolations for Lamb, who had to carry them back into contention by scoring a team-high 21 points. Michigan State's Keith Appling steadily ran the team for short bursts late in the second half, but it was too little, too late as the Russians were left open for clutch three after clutch three. "We're a team that relies on scoring, and our defense wasn't really what it should have been," said Butler forward Khyle Marshall, who recently participated in a defensive-led run to the national title game. "So if we're in trouble shooting, we're pretty much in trouble."
The majority of the U.S. players were taking the loss seriously. They stormed into the locker room in silence, Marshall was dejected as he rehashed the game, and Jackson was said to be in tears. They believed that they had a real shot at gold, never mind the fact that so many of their best peers chose to stay home. The Serbians -- one of the four semifinalists, along with Lithuania, Russia and Argentina -- were about to take the floor. The Americans' humbling had come far too early, and the world was passing them by.