US faces a navigable road at basketball worlds

Brazil's head coach Ruben Magnano gestures during their World Basketball Championship preliminary round match against Croatia in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. Brazil's head coach Ruben Magnano gestures during their World Basketball Championship preliminary round match against Croatia in Istanbul, Turkey, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Usta)
By Brian Mahoney
AP Basketball Writer / September 3, 2010

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ISTANBUL—All around them, the Americans find compelling matchups for the round of 16: a rematch of the 2006 title game; a coach facing a home country he led to an Olympic gold medal; two bitter rivals to get it all started.

All the while, a fairly navigable road right to the semifinals was emerging for the United States.

Elimination games at the world championship begin Saturday, including a surprisingly early matchup between Spain and Greece, two of the pre-tournament favorites. The Spaniards routed the Greeks for the title four years ago in Japan.

The final day of pool play began with the possibility of one those teams looming as a quarterfinal opponent for the U.S. Instead, after facing Angola, a team the U.S. traditionally just shoves out of the way, the Americans would get the winner of Russia-New Zealand, neither considered a contender.

The U.S. wasn't sharp in its final two games of pool play, but guard Chauncey Billups compared those matchups against Iran and Tunisia to an NBA team taking it easy in its final two regular-season games before the playoffs start.

"That's over with now, and now we can get to the meat and potatoes," Billups said.

The main courses in the knockout stage come right away. Serbia and Croatia, who fought a war in the early 1990s, play the opening game Saturday at the Sinan Erdem Dome. Spain and Greece follow in the nightcap.

On Sunday, it's Slovenia-Australia, followed by unbeaten host Turkey against France. The U.S.-Angola and Russia-New Zealand games are Monday, before Lithuania faces China and Argentina plays Brazil on Tuesday.

The final matchup features Brazil coach Ruben Magnano trying to knock off some of the same players he led to gold in the 2004 Olympics and silver in the 2002 worlds.

"Major tournaments, like the world championships and the Olympics can be very cruel at times," the Argentine said.

The long rest before Brazil's game gives Anderson Varejao more time for to recover. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward grabbed 12 rebounds Tuesday in just his second game after sitting out the first three with a sprained right ankle. He'll have to key the defensive effort against Argentina's Luis Scola of the Houston Rockets, leading the tournament with 29 points a game.

"To try to stop him, it's not easy, we know that," Varejao said. "It's for a reason he's the scoring leader in the tournament, but we believe we can do that, we can do a good job against him."

The winner of that game, or unbeaten Lithuania, is the most likely opponent for the Americans if they reach the semifinals.

And the Americans are predicted to get there, no matter how inconsistently they played during the group stage.

"When it comes to basketball, people expect us to win and play well all the time and win every tournament, win every game," center Lamar Odom said. "And basketball's played all over the world now, there's a balance of talent spread throughout the world."

Angola finished fourth in Group A. The perennial African champions went 0-5 in the 2008 Olympics, where the U.S. beat them 97-76, but bounced back to advance through pool play for the second straight time in the world championship.

"We know we are going to play a tough and athletic Angola team that played us really well in the Olympics two years ago," guard Stephen Curry said. "We're going to be ready."

Russia has slipped since its surprising European championship in 2007, while New Zealand has former Wisconsin star Kirk Penney, the tournament's second-leading scorer with 25.4 points a game, but probably not enough else to topple the U.S.

So it's easy to imagine the Americans playing next weekend, which Billups believes they will do as long as they dig in on both ends of the floor.

"Be very aggressive and very unselfish," he said. And I think that if we do that, we'll be playing on next Sunday."

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