Thursday, August 26, 2010

U.S. set to kick off Worlds

By John McMullen

The United States National Team will kick off the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey on Saturday when they take on Croatia in Group B play.

Team USA, which is led by defending NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with veterans Chauncey Billups of the Denver Nuggets and Lamar Odom of the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, is attempting to avenge the team's bronze medal performance during the 2006 Worlds in Japan.

Piloted by Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski, this group probably has the least amount of star power since the professionals started playing for USA Basketball in the early 1990s. Most of the NBA superstars who restored order in the hoops world back at the 2008 Beijing Olympics took a pass this time around.

The "Redeem Team," featuring Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh all helped bring back the gold medal to the United States for the first time since 2000 in China but decided against an encore performance, forcing USA Basketball chairman Jerry
Colangelo, along with Krzyzewski and his assistants, Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni, Nate McMillan and Jay Triano, to cobble together what can best be described as an NBA B-team.

The only true superstar in the bunch is Durant but that didn't stop Team USA, from finishing its preparation for the Worlds undefeated after a 87-59 rout over a highly-regarded but shorthanded Greece team in Athens on Wednesday. The Americans also topped France, Lithuania and Spain in the Global Community Cup during their prep for the Worlds.

"Coach K" has been starting Durant along with Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, and either Odom or Dallas' Tyson Chandler in the frontcourt depending on the opposition's size. Billups and Chicago's Derrick Rose handle the backcourt.

Depth, however, is what differentiates the U.S. from the rest of the world and Krzyzewski's bench is made up of Warriors sharp-shooter Stephen Curry, Indiana scorer Danny Granger and rising stars Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, Kevin Love of Minnesota and Eric Gordon of the Clippers, along with swingman
Rudy Gay of Memphis. Boston point guard Rajon Rondo was the final player left off the roster when he withdrew on Tuesday.

"I think this group is really a good group," Krzyzewski said in New York earlier this month. "I can tell you intangible-wise it's off the charts with attitude, team, hard work, 'I'll do anything', all that. That's a good place
to start."

Gordon was the star against Greece, coming off the bench to lead the U.S. with 18 points and shooting 4-of-7 from 3-point range as the second-ranked American men closed out the pre-FIBA exhibition schedule with a perfect 4-0 mark.

"We're getting more comfortable, since that first game against France," Durant said. "It's starting to get easier playing with everybody. Everybody's coming out and playing hard. I think that's the best thing about it."

"The thing we need to do is understand that we're a group that's just coming together so we have to improve game by game," Chandler added.  "We are competing against ourselves.  We want to the best that we can be in this short period of time we are together."

Twenty-four teams will compete in the 2010 FIBA World Championship, divided into four preliminary round groups consisting of six teams each. The United States was drawn into Group B back in December with Brazil, Croatia, Iran, Slovenia and Tunisia.

The U.S. has never faced Croatia in World Championship play, but is 3-0 against the club in Olympic action. Led by Roko Ukic, a former NBA player with Toronto and Milwaukee, and Ante Tomic, Croatia is currently ranked 15th in the world by FIBA. The country won a bronze medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championship but dropped off until a bit of a comeback at the 2008 Olympics and EuroBasket 2009 with sixth-place finishes in both.

Team USA will follow its bout with Croatia by facing its second European team in as many days on Aug. 29 when it meets Slovenia, a team it defeated 114-95 in 2006 World Championship preliminary play.

Slovenia, ranked 20th in the world, is without a few key players like Sacramento's Beno Udrih, who decided to quit the team because of lack of playing time, and Erazem Lorbek. Despite the setbacks, Slovenia has enough talent with Goran Dragic and Bostjan Nachbar to make them a threat in the tournament.

FIBA Americas Zone champion Brazil will then challenge the U.S. on Aug. 30. The USA-Brazil World Championship series stands at 6-5 in favor of the United States, with the two teams last meeting in the 1998 World Championship.

This version of the Brazilians, led by Toronto's Leandro Barbosa, Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, San Antonio's Tiago Splitter along with new coach Ruben Magnano, should be the United States' toughest test in Group B but is only ranked 14th in the world by FIBA.

Following a day off on Aug. 31, the USA resumes play Sept. 1 against Asia Zone champ Iran, a team it has not faced previously in World Championship play, then closes out preliminary play with a contest versus Tunisia on Sept. 2, another team that the Americans have not met in World Championship action.

Led by head coach Veselin Matic, who previously had coached the Polish national team, Iran saw great success immediately by defending its FIBA Asia Championship title last year. Memphis' Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian to play in the NBA, headlines the club.

Tunisia, meanwhile, will be participating in the World Championships for the first time after earning a berth with a bronze medal performance in the 2009 FIBA Africa Championship. Star guard Amine Rzig can fill it up from outside but Tunisia lacks depth and defensive skills.

The real competition for the Americans figures to come later in the tournament against teams like Argentina, Spain and a healthier Greece team.

The Argentines are ranked No. 1 in the world by FIBA and feature Houston Rockets power forward Luis Scola, Milwaukee swingman Carlos Delfino and Philadelphia forward Andres Nocioni. The real star, San Antonio swingman Manu Ginobili, is not participating, however and the Sixers have advised Nocioni to
withdraw due to an injured left ankle.

Even without Ginobili and the possible absence of Nocioni, Argentina figures to have one of the most balanced and fundamentally sound teams in Turkey, but may not have the go-to-guy down the stretch to build on its recent success that has included a silver at the 2002 FIBA World Championships, gold at the 2004
Olympics and bronze at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Spain, the defending world champion, is also toiling without its biggest name, Lakers power forward Pau Gasol. Pau's brother, Marc of the Memphis Grizzlies, highly-touted Minnesota draft pick Ricky Rubio and Portland sharp-shooter Rudy Fernandez are on hand, however, as the team hopes to build on its silver medal
performance at the 2008 Olympics.

Greece, meanwhile, figures to be much tougher with Sofoklis 'Baby Shaq' Schortsanitas, who was injured during warm-ups before Wednesday's exhibition game against the U.S., and Yiannis Bourousis back in the lineup.

"Greece did not have its two big guys (Schortsanitas and  Bourousis) inside, but for us it was good to play another international game against a great country, a good atmosphere, and it just gives us more experience," Krzyzewski said after that win. "We're happy that we got a chance to play everyone and I think they played all their healthy players. The score is insignificant really because they didn't have their complete team against us."

Held every four years, the FIBA World Championship is considered international basketball's crown jewel event. The U.S. has had mixed results in World Championship play. The same players that won the gold in Beijing, minus Bryant, were only able to take home a bronze in the 2006 World Championship, and the
U.S. hasn't won a gold since 1994 in Toronto, when Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime and dominating for the Americans.

All told, the USA has compiled an overall 105-27 win-loss record in the World Championships and won 10 medals - three gold medals (1954, 1986 and 1994), three silver medals (1950, 1959 and 1982) and four bronze medals (1974, 1990, 1998 and 2006).

The winner of the 2010 FIBA World Championship automatically earns a berth in the 2012 London Olympics.

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