COLORADO SPRINGS – As players filed out of a small classroom off the south side of the basketball courts at the U.S. Olympic Training Facility on Wednesday morning, the emotions ranged from shell-shocked to ecstatic.
Sixteen players were just told they could stick around and continue their pursuit of making the 12-man roster for the USA Basketball World University Games. Eight more had just had that dream dashed.
Alex Kirk’s face was as deceiving as any.
While the University of New Mexico rising junior center was one of those who survived the initial cuts, there was no smile as he slowly walked out of the room and wandered, aimlessly at first, then over to Lobos head coach Craig Neal, who watched that morning’s practice.
“Kendall didn’t make it,” Kirk said softly.
His obvious concern for his teammate, Kendall Williams, was the first time all week the 7-footer from Los Alamos looked vulnerable.
Through four practices before Wednesday morning’s initial cuts, Kirk was as aggressive and as good as any of the big men invited to the 24-member training camp. Whether he was banging with Marquette’s 290-pound center Devonte Gardner or Michigan State’s ultra-athletic 6-10 power forward Adreian Payne, Kirk looked like one of the best college big men in the nation.
“I think he’s been very good,” Syracuse coach and USA Basketball selection committee chairman Jim Boeheim said. “He takes up a lot of space. He protects the basket. He’s got a good touch. … He can stretch it, which is good, but he’s also good down low, and you need a presence down low. The Europeans are better down there than they used to be. They’re not just shooters. They’ve got some big guys.”
His USA Basketball teammates have been equally impressed.
“He’s playing great,” Creighton All-America forward Doug McDermott said. “I think he’s got a big year in front of him. If he can hit that 15-footer, even stretch it out to the 3 every once in awhile, he’ll be good. He’s a strong kid. And if he can run the floor, that will be the biggest thing. If he can run the floor, he’s got those guards (at UNM) that can push it and get him the ball.”
Kirk is being viewed by many in the camp as a good teammate because he passes well, sets good picks and rebounds.
Williams said he couldn’t be happier for his Lobo teammate, regardless of his not making it through Wednesday’s cuts.
“Alex is one of the best big men in the country,” Williams said. “I knew that before this week, but I’m so happy for him that he’s been able to come here and prove that to everyone else. He’s going to do big things in Russia.”
Many agree that Kirk should put himself in a very good position to make the final roster.
“I love his physicality,” said Elon University coach Matt Matheny, a camp coach who has worked directly with Kirk. “But he also has not only physicality but he’s got good skill. He scores it very well inside but can also knock down a perimeter jumper, which in international play could be very important.”
Said Payne, “Guarding him, especially when he’s picking and popping makes it tough. I can’t really stay on the guard as long, I got to get to him or he’ll knock down that shot.”
The 16 players still in Colorado Springs will face another cut of four players either Friday or Saturday before flying to Kazan, Russia, on Monday for the July 7-16 tournament.
However, Duke forward Rodney Hood injured his foot at Wednesday night’s practice. USA Basketball officials said they would evaluate the extent of the injury today.
Of the 15 healthy players, according to the positions listed by USA Basketball, there are six guards, five forwards and four centers.
“I still have a lot of work to do this week to get to go to Russia,” Kirk said. “This has been a great experience, and I really wish Kendall was still here, too, but now I know what I have to do. I just have to keep working to make this team. That’s the goal.”