Sergio Scariolo sees Serbia as USA's biggest threat at the FIBA World Cup

After helping the Toronto Raptors to a first NBA title, Scariolo hopes to lead 2006 champs Spain back to the basketball world podium in China.

By Rory Jiwani and Tom Kirkland ·

It's been a great 2019 for Sergio Scariolo so far.

The Italian was one of Nick Nurse's assistant coaches as the Toronto Raptors dethroned the Golden State Warriors to claim their first NBA title in June.

Now, Scariolo is making final preparations for Spain's FIBA World Cup campaign in China, where they are in Group C alongside Iran, Puerto Rico, and Tunisia.

USA will be strong favourites to complete a hat-trick of titles despite big-name withdrawals including James Harden and Anthony Davis after the likes of Steph Curry and LeBron James made themselves unavailable.

Spain's 2006 triumph was the last time a team other than the United States lifted the basketball world title, but they have failed to reach the podium since.

Spain's players including Pau Gasol (2nd right) celebrate their 2006 FIBA World Championship triumph

Scariolo first took charge of 'La Roja' in 2009 and quit after the London 2012 Olympic Games, where they were runners-up to Team USA.

He returned to the role in 2015, winning a third Eurobasket title that year before leading Spain to bronze at Rio 2016.

In China, Scariolo will be without injured star centre Pau Gasol. His brother Marc - part of the Raptors' NBA champion team - will lead the Spanish.

Just before the World Cup, Scariolo spoke to Olympic Channel about the tournament and potential split loyalties if Spain and Italy meet in the second round.

Spain head coach Sergio Scariolo with Ricky Rubio during the 90-81 defeat to USA in Anaheim on 16 August 2019

Olympic Channel: You obviously helped bring the NBA title to Toronto. What was that whole ride like?

Sergio Scariolo: It was great. It was unbelievable. We could not predict it was going to end up that way. We started working towards the summer to be competitive and be at our highest peak in the playoffs. It’s what we always had in front of our eyes. And that’s actually what happened.

We had a more than good regular season. But frankly in the play-offs, we were able to raise a level and be extremely solid mentally. We were good physically. We got to that shape thanks to our medical and condition staff. It was fun. It was a great win and an unbelievable outcome.

OC: What's it like working in the NBA?

SS: It’s quite difficult with all the time schedules, back-to-backs, different leagues. Sometimes (players) in good moods and sometimes in bad moods.

OC: What did you make of Spain's 90-81 warm-up defeat to Team USA in Anaheim earlier this month?

SS: That was not a game where the team was there to win at any cost. It was at the point of our process, training camp preparation, where a lot of areas were to be improved.

But it was good to compete against such as a great team with so many talented players, super-athletic, great NBA players. I mean, people that know the NBA from within know that those are established and well-recognised top NBA players.

Maybe somebody else can recognise the Lebrons, the Hardens and the Kawhi type of players. But those that follow basketball know that these guys are so talented, so strong, so good.

"They still form an extremely strong unit and will be again the team to beat in the World Cup." - Sergio Scariolo on two-time defending champions USA

Donovan Mitchell runs at Sergio Llull during USA's 90-81 win over Spain in Anaheim on 16 August 2019

OC: What can you take from that match and what are the USA's strengths?

SS: I’ve played many times against USA and it doesn’t matter the amount of talent they have or the individuals they have on the team, if you let them run and score and play 4-5 seconds in position and don’t control the rebounds, you are in trouble. That’s what I think.

Any US NBA select team will have those skills, that identity and that superiority in terms of physicality and athleticism so if you are able to keep them in control in the first 6-7 seconds of position and give them no more than 9-10 offensive rebounds, and have enough talent to make some buckets every once in a while and have good defence, then you have a good chance to compete.

USA head coach Gregg Popovich speaks with Kemba Walker during the warm-up win over Spain in Anaheim on 16 August 2019

OC: Spain haven't been on the podium at the World Cup since winning it in 2006. How important is this World Cup as you prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?

SS: I mean, of course it’s important. It qualifies for Tokyo. The question is more because sometimes you have the tendencies to think of one competition in terms of qualifying for another one. That’s partially true. I mean, here we have a European Championship, a World Cup which are great competitions period by themselves.

Not considering the fact that they qualify for the Olympic Games, which is the most important one without a question, but at the same time you have to try and compete and try to do well at this competition because it’s what you have in your hands and have this year.

We will try and be a good version of our team, but we are missing many good players, like the US as well. Not too many other teams other than Canada are missing a lot of their main players. But I think we will be able to be competitive even if physically we are probably not the most athletic and not the biggest team in the competition. We will try to fight it out.

OC: Europe is very strong right now making for a competitive fight for the two Olympic spots available in China. Who do you expect to be your biggest rivals for those places?

SS: I just watched the Serbia-Greece game two days ago in Athens and you feel those are the best candidates to clinch the two spots which directly qualify to Tokyo from Europe. US will, for sure, have no problem to qualify. But I think that Serbia is at the top of the strength of this generation this year and have a chance. They are probably closer than anywhere before.

OC: There are no medals for coaches at the Olympics. Do you think there should be?

SS: Participating in the Olympics is such a great experience in itself. Every little thing and aspect of this since even the previous year where there are so many little or big events are getting you close to the Olympics, then the ceremony, the competition, the village. It’s something special. It’s basically the reason why when I started in 2009, I accepted the offer from the Spanish Federation.

OC: You’re from Italy but coach Spain. Do you find it hard listening to the Spanish anthem 'Marcha Real' rather than 'Fratelli d'Italia'?

SS: That’s always a tough moment because you’re representing the country you’ve chosen. But at the same time, you know where you’re from and you know which your home country is and frankly, I don’t like to play against Italy. And when I see the competition, I always catch myself rooting for Italian athletes and Italian teams everywhere they compete.