Weighing In: Duke and the FIBA World Championships

Sometimes at Crazie-Talk we get together to discuss a hot story in the Duke-i-verse that merits some serious thought. Once on Coach K’s choice to return to Team USA back in ’09, and once, more recently, when the Blue Devils were turning their swag to 11 en route to the 2010 National Championship.

Today, Jake and Amogh discuss two Duke storylines through the lens of international (read: European) hoops and the veritable Brawl of Basketball: The FIBA World Championships. Enjoy.

Pocius had the floor on his senior night in 2009, but he didn't see much playing time on it in four injury-riddled years. (Photo courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

On Marty Pocius Being More Successful in Europe

The Lithuanian basketball team rode on the back of a familiar player to the FIBA Final Four.

Martynas Pocius, who played at Duke from 2005 to 2009, has been the firebrand that sparked his country’s team to unexpected heights in basketball’s biggest international event. Today, Pocius faces off against his former coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and the loaded young USA team.

Pocius (pronounced “Poat-zoos” for some reason) had a terrific reputation coming out of prep school in New Hampshire: scoring prowess, incredible leaping ability, and a pair of impeccable calves that soon caught one sweater loving coach’s attention during several ESPN broadcasts. Perhaps Coach Rick will invite Marty stateside for Duke’s game against Saint Louis this December 11. You know, to massage those spectacular calves.

Yet despite all the hype and sweet musculature, Marty never lived up to his 5-star rating at Duke. Or perhaps more accurately, Marty was never dealt the right cards.

The first factor in Pocius’ lukewarm career was injury. Ankle problems limited his effectiveness for two years, culminating in a medical redshirt in 2007-2008. In his fourth academic year, Pocius was technically active, but saw scant minutes off the bench in a Sweet Sixteen season. He decided to forgo his fifth year of eligibility to play professionally—back home in Lithuania. More on that later.

Compounding Pocius’ inconsistent health was (go figure) Duke’s tremendous guard depth. Over his career, Marty was buried in the depth chart behind a formidable group: DeMarcus Nelson, Jon Scheyer, Gerald Henderson, Greg Paulus, Nolan Smith and Elliot Williams. When healthy, fans attributed Marty’s pineriding to a lack of defensive skills and penchant for fouling (not an uncommon criticism for European players, after all). The truth is, if you miss practice at Duke (injured or not), it’s hard to crack the starting lineup. Coach K is pretty consistent on that. It’s even harder if, as in Marty’s case, you have three to five NBA-level guards on your team. Not everyone can play on bad ankles. Not everyone is Brett Favre.

It’s fitting that Pocius’ best performance—14 points on 5-5 shooting in 17 minutes—came in one of the darkest moments of the past decade: Duke’s first round ACC Tournament exit to NC State in 2007. And unlike last year, the team didn’t learn from losing to the lowly Wolfpack—they went ahead and lost to VCU. Even when he won, his team lost.

But enough with the negativity.

One year removed from his Duke career, Marty is thriving in what is clearly his natural habitat—EuroBasket. He averaged 8.1 points per game in sixteen games this past season with BC Zalgiris in Kaunas, Lithuania, a city just 102 kilometers away from Marty’s native Vilnius. (Editor’s Note: Vilnius factors largely in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, a book I’m about to finish. Oh, how FIBA brings it all together…)

In the World Championships, Marty has scored 61 points in 128 minutes of action, acting as a key reserve for a Lithuanian squad that has largely exceeded expectations. In Lithuania’s huge “upset” over (soon to be former) world number one Argentina, Pocius was scintillating: 16 points on 6 of 11 shooting (including two treys) and 4 rebounds in just 26 minutes of action. Stick it, Luis Scola.

While players mature mentally and physically at different stages in their careers, one can’t help but wonder what Marty could’ve accomplished at Duke if he had been injury-free. Or, on a more extraneous note, had he attended a University whose calling card wasn’t tough, American style guard play, he certainly would have played more (again, barring injuries).

(Jonathan Givony of anti-predictive NBA draft site DraftExpress started a tweet war the other day claiming that Coach K had wasted Pocius, before finally admitting that he had never seen Marty play a minute in college. So, all’s well that ends…idiotically?)

Disregarding the woulda coulda shouldas, when this story bottoms out, it’s redemptive and happy. By proving himself in international basketball, Marty also proved he belonged at Duke.

We wish Marty the very best with his career in Europe. As he faces his former mentor tomorrow against Team USA, we anticipate a big performance under the bright lights and fiery eyes of his opponent’s coach.

And just like against the Wolfpack in ’07, we hope he loses. Sorry, bro.

UPDATE: Marty got the start against the United States today, and showed well: 13 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 steals. However, Kevin Durant was unstoppable, setting an American record with 38 points, and Team USA got the 89-74 victory. Congrats to Marty on a great tournament, he certainly turned a lot of heads. And I know Majerus watched every minute scrupulously.

You can follow Marty’s entertaining Twitter here: @LTUMarty.

Coach K PO'd some media folk the other day, but not these ones. They seem cool. (Courtesy of DukeBluePlanet.com)

The Briefly Noted Saga of Coach K vs. the Israeli-American coach of Russia/Former USSR

OK, OK. I know we’re late to this party. Team USA’s already avenged 1972 beaten Russia in the FIBA quarterfinals. Doug Collins is still righteously pissed off even if his new star in Philly, Andre Iguodala, was part of the “B-deem team” that took out the Bear Nation.

Even if the Russians are not the Soviets (because in Soviet Russia, ball dunk you) and the Cold War is twenty years past, the officiating catastrophe in the 1972 gold medal game between the U.S. and USSR still infuriates a lot of people.

Coach K, a veteran of West Point and former Army Captain, is one of those people.

I’m about 50% tempted to give Coach a mulligan on his faux-pas in calling David Blatt, an American and Israeli citizen, a “Russian” and being offended by Blatt’s innocuous belief that the USSR was the rightful winner of the ’72 game. Only fifty percent because only that much of it was wrong, or even mildly offensive.

Since K has established himself as one of the top coaches in the sport, he hasn’t needed to be a firebrand in the media like he used to be (after all, he ‘loves Dean Smith’ these days). I was surprised by these comments not only because of their inflammatory nature—it should’ve been easy for some assistant to tell the acting American basketball ambassador that Blatt was, in fact, an American (somebody hire Reggie Love). It just seemed out of character for K to be so unsavvy with the press.

But, as any Mad Men fan has learned from Roger Sterling‘s feud with “the Japs,” military allegiances run deep. And although K stated that Blatt’s comments had “absolutely” no effect on his game preparation, I have a feeling this whole thing fired up the old soldier in K, even after he realized his mistake on Blatt’s nationality.

After the game, Coach K sheepishly praised Blatt. He knew he was wrong. The game went over without controversy. The right team won. All good, right?

Not for Adrian Wojnarowski, it wasn’t.

WTF, Woj?

Wojnarowski, a reporter for Yahoo! Sports, originally reported Blatt’s gracious response on this issue. He then went on to write a livid, flamethrowing piece on K’s behavior, calling the comments a “desperate stunt” to motivate his players while “in [a] haste to exploit that old American gash” of the ’72 game.

He goes on to say that K’s “low-rent” actions were an attempt to rile up American public hatred of the Soviets. To Wojnarowski, this somehow proves that K has no faith in his own team. So apparently, not only is K a old fogey bigot, but he’s not even patriotic enough to believe his own team could win. Huh?

I don’t think a doctoral thesis could legitimize that kind of harsh claim, and Wojnarowski certainly does not. Not to mention Woj’s offering of an irrelevant opinion on whether the ’72 squad should have accepted their medals: “This 38-year blood war with that loss has gone on long enough,” and the team should accept their medals graciously. Yeah, I’m sure they haven’t heard that before.

Wojnarowski pulls a low-rent stunt of his own, bringing up the murder of Israeli athletes at the ’72 games as a counterpoint to the “ache for the ages” that the loss to the Soviets was. Dude, what does that have do with Coach K?

The venomous article is a lot to extrapolate from a few off-color comments from a man who led Team USA back to the same gold medal stand that his friends and colleagues were denied in 1972. I understand that Wojnarowski is paid to take such polarized positions, and considering his normally solid work, I was surprised by this sudden take-off on Air Gregg Doyel.

K certainly made a mistake. But not the kinds of mistakes that Wojnarowski claims. I’m tempted to say Kiss the Medals, but Team USA still has Lithuania to take care of.

Crazie-Talk thanks you for reading this article, if you’ve gotten this far. Be sure to keep tabs on two big games at noon EST: Duke Football’s showdown with Wake Forest, and of course, the United States-Lithuania semi-final match.

Go Blue Devils, and Go America.

One thought on “Weighing In: Duke and the FIBA World Championships

  1. I think Coach K absolutely knows the guy is American-are you kidding me? Coach K was dripping with sarcasm if you watch the video. He wanted to get under Blatts skins because his comments definitely got under his. Psycho-jousting at its best…next Phil Jackson.

Comments are closed.