For the United States, the rivals will be bigger names from now on. Nikola Vucevic awaits them on Friday and Jonas Valanciunas on Sunday, and as the Americans continue their path in the FIBA World Cup, the challenges will become increasingly difficult.
They don’t seem to have a problem.
The second round of the tournament begins on Friday with the 16 surviving hopefuls of the 32 who started the fight for the Naismith Trophy. The United States is one of eight perfect-scoring teams with the easiest route to the quarterfinals.
“There’s a certain respect immediately felt by the guys who play them in the NBA,” said US coach Steve Kerr. “His familiarity helps too. The difficult thing is when you go to a game and there’s a really good player that these guys don’t know, and he has a last name with a lot of letters, and you have to call him a number five or whatever, and our boys aren’t there. We are prepared for how good this player is. That is a big challenge in this tournament.”
No longer. Nobody needs to Google the best players of the teams that made it to the second round. Luka Doncic is there, along with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Karl-Anthony Towns, Dennis Schroder, Patty Mills, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Vucevic, and Valanciunas, among others.
In the second round, the USA will face Montenegro on Friday and Lithuania on Sunday.
“For us as a country, playing against the United States is something very big,” said Vucevic, Montenegro’s top player. “We have to go out there and do our best… and enjoy this game.”
Alongside the USA and Slovenia, holders Spain, Canada, Germany, Serbia, the Dominican Republic, and Lithuania also advance to the second round with a 3-0 record. For these eight teams, the mission is simple: win two games this weekend and be in the quarterfinals. They, too, could miss one of their next two engagements and stay alive.
Eight teams advanced in the second round with a 2-1 record: Montenegro, Greece, Italy, Puerto Rico, Australia, Georgia, Brazil, and Latvia.
The United States is the only team to have won all of their games by at least 27 points. Canada follows with 26 and Lithuania with 20.
“It doesn’t change anything,” said US captain Jalen Brunson. “The attitude has to be the same. It’s almost like a knockout phase, and we go into the game like it’s our last. We have to keep this mentality. Now there is much more at stake.”
There’s more at stake than just the World Cup.
Australia has already qualified for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris. The remaining 15 teams are still aiming for an automatic ticket, depending on where they end up here. Two of the five teams from America and two of the ten European teams will receive Olympic passage.
Canada is aiming for the first medal in its history at a World Cup. There will be at least two other teams on the podium that didn’t feature at the last World Cup: Spain, who won 11 straight games at the event, is still alive, but second-placed Argentina failed to qualify, and third-placed France was defeated. eliminated in the first round.
For the USA, it’s just the obvious: win Friday, win Sunday, and go undefeated into the elimination round.
“When you put on that uniform, losing is not an option,” said guard Tyrese Haliburton. “Every game weighs. It’s something serious for us. We don’t think, ‘Oh, if we lose, we can still be champions. It’s about getting better with every game.’
Some of the most notable matchups from Round 2:
Dominican Republic vs. Puerto Rico, Friday in Manila: Regional rivals, and both are likely to need a win to keep any realistic hope of an automatic Olympic ticket alive.
Italy vs. Serbia, Manila on Friday: Italy has won their last two encounters, including a triumph in Belgrade, to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, leaving Serbia with no options.
Slovenia vs. Australia, Okinawa Friday: A replay of the bronze medal match in Tokyo, which Australia won.
Lithuania v. USA, Sunday in Manila: Lithuania’s proud basketball history includes a victory over the United States at the 1998 World Cup, which the United States attended without an NBA player, and the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Canada v. Spain, Sunday in Jakarta: The fiery Canadians against the defending champions