On Sunday, the USA Basketball finished an ignominious run in the 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championships with another shaky result: Thanks to a tip-in in the final minute by Connecticut small forward Jeremy Lamb, the U.S. survived Australia -- yes, Australia -- 78-77 to take fifth place in the competition. Yes: fifth place.
That finish (and the nature of the close call itself) seem bad enough, but it was hardly as disappointing as what came before. On Friday, the U-19 team lost to a so-so Russian team 79-74 in the tourney's quarterfinal round. Without overstating the case, it's fair to say that loss was as much of a letdown as anything USA Basketball as a whole has done since the men's national team finished sixth at the FIBAs in 2002 and earned a bronze medal at the Olympics in 2004. Just as USA Basketball isn't "supposed" to win bronze medals at the Olympics, its best under-19 players aren't supposed to lose to those from Russia, Australia or anywhere else.
Problem is, most of America's best under-19 talent didn't make the trip to Latvia. As Diamond Leung wrote Friday, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones and Jared Sullinger, among others, declined their invitations to the team in favor of the Nike summer camp circuit, where players run drills and play pickup games for the benefit of NBA scouts. But Team USA should have beaten Russia anyway.
So -- deep breath -- what does it all mean?
The first reaction is to assume that, gasp, the rest of the world is catching up to America in basketball. It's the same refrain we heard in 2002 and 2004, and it is in some ways correct: The days of USA's unbridled dominance in the world game are over. To win gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the best collection of hoops talent since the Dream Team had to outlast a very difficult final game with a high-powered Spain squad; the outcome was never assured. That world-flattening process is only going to accelerate at the younger levels.
When you couple this with the prominence of international picks in the 2011 NBA draft, it certainly feels like we're seeing the logical next step in a long-term trend. Even if that's not necessarily the case.
Indeed, Russia's crop of 19-year-olds is far from what the college game has to offer, especially in 2011. That's why, more than anything, this fifth-place finish serves as an indictment of USA Basketball's developmental infrastructure. When top young players are offered the opportunity to travel to Europe and represent their country alongside their peers, and those players instead find it more rewarding to stay in the States, visit shoe-sponsored camps and work on their euro steps for two hours a day, well, whose fault is that? The players? Nike? Or USA Basketball?
There's also the matter of schools worrying about their one-and-done prospects' potential APR problems, which a scout told SI's Luke Winn (in Latvia, no less) was one of the most important factors in keeping so much of the best young American talent home:
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?"
[...] 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.
In some ways, the U.S. is at a disadvantage in the FIBA game. The international rules are tweaked, other teams have played together for years, and the game is stylistically different; international players are still more deft at tricky angles and space maximization than most of America's athletic young talent. Even with an overwhelming barrage of talent, the US can struggle to adapt to this style. (In 2008, USA Basketball head Jerry Colangelo worked alongside Coach K to build a team that wasn't just the most talented in the world, but also one that could play a style of uber-international hoops when the moment required it.) This is much harder to do with 19-year-olds playing in some of their first international competition ever. When you don't have your best talent on the floor -- and the talent you do have is accused of unearned complacency during the tournament -- the task only gets more difficult.
Complacency, confusion, and the best of American talent performing in Nike-sponsored shoe camps: This is why the US lost to Russia, barely survived Australia, and finished fifth at the Under-19 FIBA World Championships this week. Unless the NBA becomes less desirable, college coaches become less controlling and shoe companies become less powerful, this won't be the last time other nations ecstatically celebrate a Team USA loss.