As expected, it is USA vs. Russia on Thursday in the FIBA World Championships quarterfinals.
Russia filled out its half of the bracket beating New Zealand 78-56, showing off some of the defense and the inside game that will give the USA their best challenge since Brazil (and maybe their best challenge so far period).
The defense the Russians ran was effective — it held New Zealand to 29 percent shooting in the first half — but it was also different than what the Russians did a lot in pool play. They have a very good matchup zone, but they ran exclusive man-to-man against New Zealand. You can bet the Americans will see the zone.
The man-to-man worked, but the game stayed close, it was just 32-36 at the half. The real difference in this one ended up being foul trouble for New Zealand’s best scorer Kirk Penney. He had three first half fouls but the Tall Blacks (New Zealand’s nickname) had to stick with him because they needed the points.
But when Penney picked up his fourth foul three minutes into the second half, he had to sit. Russia then went on a 15-3 run, and it was over. Penney finished with 21 in this one.
Russia also did a good job exploiting their height advantage. The Russians start 6’11” Sasha Kaun (the former Kansas Jayhawk) and then bring in 7’1″ Timofey Mozgov (he will be a rookie for the New York Knicks next season). New Zealand’s starting center is 6’6″. That’s why Mozgov had 16 points and 7 rebounds, and 6’9″ forward Andrey Vorontsevich added 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting.
The USA have some height up front with Lamar Odom, Kevin Love and Tyson Chandler, but this is the best front line the USA has taken on so far. That was supposed to be a way to attack the USA, you can bet the Russians will.
Thursday is when it gets real serious for the USA, a team with the talent to win the gold but one raw and one capable of having the one bad game that costs them as well. Thursday is when the USA starts to face teams that can really make them pay for those days.