Wichita State Shockers

WSU’s Ron Baker chases Pan American Games gold on U.S. team

Wichita State's Ron Baker (31) is part of the American men’s basketball team that opens pool play Tuesday night against Venezuela in the Pan American Games.
Wichita State's Ron Baker (31) is part of the American men’s basketball team that opens pool play Tuesday night against Venezuela in the Pan American Games. The Wichita Eagle

Kansas State’s Jack Hartman coached the last United States men’s basketball team to Pan American Games gold, assisted by Bob Chipman and Lon Kruger. That 1983 team featured Michael Jordan, Wayman Tisdale and Sam Perkins and went 8-0 in Venezuela.

Since then, coaches such as Denny Crum, Tom Izzo and Nate Tibbets and players such as Blake Ahearn, Roy Hibbert, Grant Hill and Danny Manning watched other countries grab the gold medal.

The 2015 U.S. team may not know the specifics. They do know it is long past time for the United States to win a ninth Pan Am title.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Wichita State guard Ron Baker said. “There’s been a reason why the U.S. hasn’t won it. It’s because the (opponents) that go down there are very, very skilled and very good. It’s going to take a lot of effort. It’s going to take a lot of energy to put a good run on this tournament.”

The United States opens the Pan Am Games at 8 p.m. Tuesday against Venezuela in Toronto, followed by games against Puerto Rico and Brazil on Wednesday and Thursday. Semifinals, for teams that advance out of pool play, are on Friday.

Baker, a senior at WSU, is one of seven college players on the 12-man roster and that composition reflects the changes in international basketball since 1983. As other countries improved, the U.S. model of sending collegians changed. Izzo’s 2003 team, all college players, finished fourth and the 2007 team, the youngest team in the field, finished fifth.

The 2011 team, stocked with players from the NBA Development League and coached by Tibbets, finished third.

This time, USA Basketball is combining experienced college players with pros who know the FIBA game.

“That dynamic has helped because a lot of the professional players are older and they’ve got some experience,’ assistant coach Tad Boyle said. “They’ve really been helping the younger guys with terminology and what they’re going to be faced with.”

Boyle, a former Kansas player and WSU assistant, is enjoying coaching Baker.

“He’s a terrific young man and I can see why Wichita State has won so many games since he’s been there,” Boyle said. “He’s tough. He’s hard-nosed. He doesn’t back down from anything or anybody. I love coaching him.”

Center Ryan Hollins, 30, guard Bobby Brown, 30, and forward Damien Wilkins, 35, are veterans of several NBA seasons. Former Kansas star Keith Langford, 31, is a star in Russia. They provide the physical strength and international knowledge the college players lack. Their job is to smooth out the learning curve for youngsters adjusting to a longer three-point line, a 24-second shot clock and a more physical game.

Cutting the roster took the early part of training camp. The team of 12 went to Chicago for four days of practices before heading to Toronto. Baker said practices are short — pros aren’t used to going two-plus hours like college players — with an emphasis on putting in a few sets, out-of-bounds plays and halfcourt scrimmaging. There is no time for fundamental work; players are assumed to know how to box out and pass.

“Coach (Mark) Few wants to play fast, get some easy baskets in transition,” Boyle said. “The learning curve is pretty steep, and that’s what makes it such a challenging proposition.”

College players are losing 11 seconds in which to run their offense, meaning the first good shot may be the best one to take. The plan of passing up good shots to get great shots is harder to execute against experienced defenses and a 24-second clock.

“In college, you’ve got time to run your transition offense and then get into your breakdown offense,” Baker said. “In FIBA, you’re running your running your transition game and then you go right into a late-clock play. You’ve just got to make a play after that.”

Coaches stocked the roster with wing players who can defend the three-point line, a key part of the international game. Baker said players such as Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine and Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon will take away those shots.

“Our motto is to run people off the line because FIBA guys love to take that three,” Baker said. “We’ll be physical on the perimeter. We’re going to make them tough, contested threes.”

Baker remembers watching Langford during his career at Kansas from 2001-05. He played briefly in the NBA in 2007-08 and has racked up numerous international awards while playing in Italy, Israel and Russia.

“He’s still got this strength at the three-spot,” Baker said. “He’s kind of our iso guy when we run plays for the three-spot.”

Brogdon, a senior from Atlanta, took a recruiting visit to Wichita State.

“I didn’t realize how skilled he was,” Baker said. “He’s a teammate that you like to play with. Malcolm has been doing a really good job with the system Mark Few is putting in.”

Boyle said coaches used the 32-year drought during training camp and expects Few to hit that point more as tip-off approaches. It is a great experience to wear a U.S. uniform, one made better if it comes with a gold medal.

“We’ve got a an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done in a long, long time,” he said. “To represent your country in international competition, I’m not sure there’s a bigger responsibility that falls on your shoulders as a coach or player.”

Reach Paul Suellentrop at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @paulsuellentrop.

U.S. VS. VENEZUELA

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

What: Pan Am Games men’s basketball

Where: Ryerson Athletic Center, Toronto

TV: All U.S. games are on ESPN3, ESPN’s Internet platform, and are scheduled as part of ESPN2’s nightly live coverage.

Pan Am Games

Men’s Basketball

Ryerson Athletic Center, Toronto

Schedule

Tuesday – vs. Venezuela, 8 p.m.

Wednesday – vs. Puerto Rico, 8 p.m.

Thursday – vs. Brazil, 8 p.m.

Friday – Semifinals

Saturday – Semifinals

Rules differences

FIBA games are played in four 10-minute quarters

The lane is four feet wider (16 feet) than in college

The FIBA shot clock is 24 seconds and teams must cross halfcourt within eight seconds.

Offensive and defensive players can touch the ball above the cylinder.

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