If there is a game Team USA could come dangerously close to losing in first-round action at the FIBA World Championship, it's the one coming up in the early hours of Tuesday morning against unheralded Slovenia.
|The Bobcats' Primoz Brezec is one Slovenia player with NBA experience. (Getty Images)|
People getting up early for work or getting their kids ready for school might catch a glimpse of this one, if only to monitor how much the U.S. is up. The Americans are 18-point favorites.
By all accounts, Tyson came into his fight out of shape and oblivious to his opponent's hunger. The U.S. players are anything but out of shape, coming off an explosive performance against the overwhelmed Chinese, basically dodging the Yao Ming bullet. It is, however, conceivable that Mike Krzyzewski's team could struggle with concentration, taking the third opponent lightly.
That's where the peril lies.
This is the middle game of group play for the United States, coming on the heels of a day off. Up next is Italy, who should move to 3-0 easily against winless Senegal. There's no doubt the Americans will be intent on going out and making a statement in that game. There's no jeopardy of overlooking a team that has been regarded as the main competition in Group D since the tournament began, but before that there's still the matter of Slovenia. Complicating matters is the fact Slovenia is pretty good.
"I'm impressed with them; they have a well-conceived offense. They have a number of NBA players on their team so they are not intimidated," Krzyzewski told the FIBA website. "(They're) well coached. They lost a heartbreaker against Italy; it was a great game. Italy and Slovenia are two teams with amazing grit and toughness, so we expect those two games to be really tough games for us."
Hopefully Krzyzewski's team heeds his warning. Slovenia lost to the Italians 80-76 on Sunday in a game that was tied with less than two minutes remaining. The outcome was in doubt until the final 15 seconds.
Slovenia, a relative newcomer on the international basketball scene, is led by Raptors center Rasho Nesterovic and Bobcats big man Primoz Brezec, with recent Toronto signee Uros Slokar coming off the bench. Those three are all 6-foot-10 or taller, posing a potential problem given the Americans' lack of size.
Their wings are solid, paced by Italian League veterans Sani Becirovic and Marko Milic and New Jersey Nets acquisition Bostjan Nachbar, currently the team's leading scorer. Savvy Sani Becirovic and San Antonio's Beno Udrih are the ball handlers.
Through two games, eight Slovenians are averaging eight or more points, which is a testament to their depth. If someone is slumping, they can turn to someone else. The U.S. has yet to face a team with that type of depth, basically toppling squads that lived with the philosophy of go-to guy (Carlos Arroyo, Yao) or bust.
Now, before you go thinking I'm running off at the typewriter trying to pump up the opponent, it should be noted that there's no way the U.S. shouldn't win this game. Every player on their roster would start for Slovenia. Brad Miller, who has to this point been the U.S. team's 12th man, would be considered an upgrade from Nesterovic, considered their top player.
Talent isn't the issue. Focus is. The situation dictates there could be a letdown, and as machine-like as the U.S. team has been, there have been situations where they have lost their way. It happened against Brazil in an exhibition, and it happened in the tournament opener against Puerto Rico. Both teams went on significant runs that made the outcome of those games closer than they should've been.
Another thing to consider is the lack of pressure Slovenia is under. Few give them a chance. Realistically, they probably chalked this game up as a loss when the round groupings were announced. They can let it all hang out and then concentrate on guaranteeing their passage to knockout play by notching a win against Puerto Rico and China. This could simply be viewed as a scrimmage geared toward generating confidence.
Should the U.S. lose, it's not like Team USA is going to be thrown out of the tournament. In fact, the Americans could conceivably bounce back to beat Italy, take the group and end up right where everyone expects them to be. However, the Americans would lose some of the aura of invincibility they have been building, allowing others to believe they can pull an upset, too.
Where this game was placed on the schedule -- right smack dab in the middle -- and the circumstances under which both teams come into it is shrouded by the unexplainable feeling that this is a setup. Something about it makes me uneasy. For the United States to cruise comfortably, it's best they feel that way, too.