Manchester, United Kingdom. Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the United States Olympic basketball team, expects a tough challenge from his former player Luol Deng and hosts Great Britain as his side continues its preparation for London 2012.
The USA, winners over the Dominican Republic and Brazil, face a third exhibition game against Great Britain at Manchester’s MEN Arena on Thursday before flying to Barcelona to meet Spain and Argentina ahead of their Olympic title defense.
Great Britain, 350-1 underdogs to win gold in London, have just two NBA players on their roster, the 6ft 10in forward Joel Freeland, who will make his NBA debut with the Portland Trailblazers next season, and Chicago Bulls All Star Deng, who spent one season playing for Krzyzewski at Duke in 2003-04.
However, despite the relatively modest opposition, Krzyzewski believes the Manchester experience will be an important one in his team’s preparations.
“The main thing we want is to get a feel for the country. We want to sample the enthusiasm and the spirit,” said Krzyzewski. “Watching Luol in action will be a good thing for me but we also want to get a flavour for the Olympics and then go to Spain to fine tune.
“The Manchester stop is going to be an interesting one. All the guys are excited about it, they all know the name Manchester. A number of them are soccer fans. Kobe [Bryant] watches it all the time and LeBron [James] is, too. We’re visiting a place that is accustomed to championships and hosting high level sport so we’re looking forward to it.”
While logic dictates Great Britain, who have won just two of their nine friendly games this summer, will be seriously over-matched against the defending Olympic champions, Krzyzewski is respectful of what the hosts could achieve in London with Deng in their ranks.
“The first thing they’ve done already is that their best player has shown an amazing commitment to his country,” he said. “I get chills just thinking about it. I love Luol’s commitment, he’s done an amazing job of bringing attention to the game in Great Britain in a very positive way.
“And, knowing him, I am expecting some amazing performances that might produce some upsets,” Krzyzewski added. “They will obviously be an underdog throughout, but this is a great step for basketball in the UK to take. I hope they have a great showing.”
Deng believes the visit of the USA to Manchester, in front of a sell-out 17,000 crowd that will represent the largest attendance at a basketball game in Britain, marks a significant step for the sport in his country.
“I’m excited to be playing against ‘Coach K’ but more than anything I’m excited for British basketball,” said Deng. “Growing up in Brixton [in south London], I never saw anything like this happen. The other week we played France, who are number four in the world, we played Spain who are second, now we are playing the USA who are number one.
“As a kid, that was my dream, to play against the best,” Deng added. “There are still a lot of people in the UK who don’t know much about the sport but our basketball programme is there. Now the USA are here, I’m excited about it.”
Great Britain coach Chris Finch acknowledges some of his younger players might be over-awed by the experience but expects an appropriate response.
“I’m not worried about it, the opportunity is unique because we are case hardening ourselves,” said Finch, an assistant with the NBA Houston Rockets. “There are guys who are going to be a little bit in awe and they should be.
“But after 90 seconds they should go out and play. One advantage of seeing these guys every day in my day job is, they make mistakes, they don’t always play great basketball and I think our guys will recognise that.”