Photo credit: Bill Baptist/USA Basketball
KINGSTON, R.I. — For any athlete, no matter the sport, an opportunity to represent his or her country is one of the highest levels of achievement. For two former Rhode Island men's basketball standouts, the opportunity to play for Team USA is a dream actualized.
On Aug. 21, Xavier Munford and Billy Baron were announced as two of the 12 players that were selected to the USA Basketball Men's AmeriCup team that begins group play on Monday, Aug. 28 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Donning the Red, White, and Blue jerseys emblazoned with USA on the front is something both players will cherish.
"For me to be able to play the game I love for a living is an honor in itself, but to be able to do that while representing my country - wow," Munford said on Friday. "It is truly an honor and a humbling opportunity. I am excited to represent Team USA and compete for a gold medal."
"Putting on the Team USA jersey is a dream come true. To be able to do this is an absolute honor and I will forever be grateful for this opportunity of a lifetime," said Baron.
The two former Rhody backcourt standouts were among 17 players that began a week-long training camp in Houston on August 17 under the guidance of former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy. Four days later, the final roster was pared down to 12. For both players, the short turnaround time was not foreign.
"The NBA Summer league is very similar to what we have done, except the pressure to win with Team USA is much greater," Baron said.
Munford agreed, adding, "Coach Van Gundy has us competing at a high level in preparation for the AmeriCup games. He has us fully aware of what is at stake and that it won't be an easy task. We have a great challenge ahead and it's on us to represent the USA to the best of our abilities at the highest level."
Van Gundy last coached in the NBA a decade ago and compiled 430 victories, including 44 in the NBA Playoffs. But this will mark his first time on the sidelines of FIBA play. In a column by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski on Aug. 25, the former head coach of the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets detailed his messaging to his newest squad: "I can't oversell the point to our team that, just because you don't know their names, in some cases, doesn't mean they're not an outstanding player, But more importantly, these guys have a competitive spirit that's different. You can't hold up in a FIBA game if you don't have great competitive spirit. You'll get your will broken -- and maybe your jaw too."
Baron - who played with the Rams during the 2011-12 season - has three years of international playing experience since graduating from Canisius College in 2014, most recently in Spain with UCAM Murcia. He is one of the seven players on the Team USA roster have experience playing overseas.
"Learning the international game gave me a natural feel walking into training camp," Baron said. "I have a better idea on what to expect from the teams we will be facing. It's a much different game as far as the physicality, it's something that I have grown accustomed to over the past three years."
Munford's basketball foundation was forged in toughness, having starred for head coach Dan Hurley in high school at St. Benedict's Prep and with Rhode Island from 2013-15. The 6-3 guard played last season with FC Barcelona - one of the top teams in Spain and the Euroleague. He is also one of six players with NBA experience - including a 2016 NBA Playoffs appearance with the Memphis Grizzlies.
"The overseas game is a different style of play and it has helped me understand movements, spacing and passing from a different scope," Munford explained. "My time in Memphis was great and was an experience that has benefitted me over the past year. From being confident in controlling the tempo of a game, to staying calm in big moments, it is all stuff I tried to show I am capable of in camp."
The most recent member of a USA Basketball senior team from the University of Rhode Island was Lamar Odom, who was a key member of the gold medal-winning squad at the 2010 FIBA World Championship. Odom was also a member of Team USA during the 2004 Olympic Games.
"We have a great group of guys and this is going to be a total team effort," Munford said. "There is a lot of talent from top to bottom with guys who have great experience. And there is no better coach to lead us than Coach Van Gundy with all of his success. I am excited to play with this group and hopefully win a gold medal."
Team USA competes in group C and will play the first of three preliminary round games on Monday, Aug. 28 against Panama at 5 p.m. ET. in Montevideo, Uruguay. The Americans will face host Uruguay on Tuesday, Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. followed by a matchup with the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, Aug. 30.
Argentina, as host, and the top finishing teams from Group A, Group B and Group C will advance to Córdoba, Argentina, to play in the Sept. 2 semifinals and the bronze and gold medal games on Sept. 3. The FIBA AmeriCup 2017, considered the FIBA Americas zone championship, will feature 12 nations from North America, Central America, the Caribbean and South America.
In addition to the USA, Uruguay, Dominican Republic and Panama in Group C, Group A will play Aug. 25-27 in Medellín, Colombia, and includes the host country Colombia, as well as Brazil, Mexico and Puerto Rico; while Group B will compete Aug. 27-29 in Bahía Blanca, Argentina, and will consist of host country Argentina, as well as Canada, U.S. Virgin Islands and Venezuela.
Overall, USA Basketball officially has fielded teams in eight FIBA Americas Championships, winning six gold (2007, 2003, 1999, 1997, 1993 and 1992) and one silver medal (1989), while compiling a 60-10 win-loss record.