The FIBA U18 Americas basketball tournament is ongoing, with the U.S. facing off against the rest of North, Central and South America. As one might expect, the U.S. is always a heavy favorite in the tournament.
Yet even being a heavy favorite can’t explain or justify what unfolded Monday night in Team USA’s second preliminary round game, when the Americans routed Team Panama, 118-26. Yes, it was as bad as the score indicates, and underscores the larger problem with youth tournaments like the FIBA Americas bracket: If one team is so superior to everyone else, is competing against that team good for it, or for its foes? Or is it just good for FIBA?
First, some of the more gaudy breakout stats from Monday night’s Panamanian massacre in Canada, which you can re-watch above in full should you care to:
— Team USA led 43-0 at the end of the first quarter, and 45-0 before it allowed a Panamanian bucket
— The Team USA bench contributed 23 points before the Americans allowed a single basket; that was nearly enough to win the game on its own
— The Americans shot 62.5 percent in the first half, building a lead of 70-8
— All 12 U.S. players scored in the victory
— Five-star recruit Armando Bacot finished with a game-high 17 points, just nine fewer than the entire Panama team
Then of course there was the final score.
“Don’t play the score, try play to win each possession. A lot of coach-speak,” USA U18 and University of Kansas head coach Bill Self told USA Basketball’s media department about what he stressed to his team after the early lead. “I thought our guys actually did a pretty decent job. I’ve never seen a score like that after one quarter. After that, they still tried to play the right way.”
There are certainly some ancillary benefits to Team USA of having this group play together. Many will continue to excel and are likely to team up for Team USA at higher levels in the future.
Yet this Team Panama squad is hardly the kind of group to provide real competition. In fact, they aren’t the kind to even finish a game at all. One of Panama’s more skilled players is John David Gunn, a two-sport athlete at Wheaton Academy in Illinois who is just as highly sought of as a soccer prospect … and who recently agreed to play at Biola University in basketball and soccer. If you haven’t heard of Biola University before, that’s probably because it’s currently an NAIA school (it’s transitioning to become an NCAA Division II school).
Another Panamanian starter, point guard and sixth man Adrian Roux, spends just as much time playing American football in high school as he does playing basketball.
All of that is great. Really, it is. It’s good for Gunn to have access to international competition like this, and it’s powerful for Roux to compete against world class developing talent like Bacot and Kansas recruit Quentin Grimes. But it’s not competitive. If anything, blowout losses like Monday’s could drive the likes of Gunn and Roux away from the sport altogether.
That’s certainly not the goal of a continental competition like the FIBA Americas tournament. And that only raises a larger, more philosophical question: What is the point of the U18 and younger classifications of the FIBA Americas championship? It’s not just to serve as a coronation procession for the Americans, even if that’s what unfolds every almost every time (yes, Argentina won one U18 title, in 2008, as did Puerto Rico in 2002).
Is the point of the tournament just to raise more revenue for FIBA’s American confederations? That seems unlikely, as even the sales for the current tournament in Canada, just north of the American border, are anemic at best and nonexistent at other times.
At it’s root, the biggest benefits of the regularly scheduled international tournament is the exposure the prospects involved get on a larger stage. That’s not particularly important for the American stars who are already primo recruits, but it could be for the Gunn’s and Roux’s of the world. One would hope they could generate interest from farther afield than Biola University, but if that’s the limit of what Puerto Rico’s sharp shooter can achieve, at least he had the talents of Team USA to confirm it in one fell swoop.