ISTANBUL (FIBA World Championship) - When a country wins gold at the Olympics and then shows up at the FIBA World Championship two years later with a completely different team, one might think that side is in for a hiding.
After all, most successful national sides are ones that have players who have competed together summer after summer, the ones in which the players have grown up together in the youth teams and then graduated to the senior sides.
Well, the United States won the title at the Beijing Games two years ago in 2008 but have travelled to the FIBA World Championship in Turkey with 12 new players.
“I think we’re really hungry and we’re really excited to have the opportunity to play for the USA and we want to bring back home the gold,” United States guard Andre Iguodala said.
Standing in the way of the United States in Group B are Slovenia, Brazil and Croatia, sides that are no strangers to big tournaments and ones that promise to give the USA some problems.
There are also two-time FIBA Asia champions Iran and last year’s FIBA Africa Championship bronze medalists Tunisia.
What the USA do have is continuity in the coaching staff and this may be their biggest cause for optimism.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has stressed the importance of playing defense and the players have been listening.
“Defense wins championships. Offense wins games,” point guard Derrick Rose said.
“We are going to have to allow our defense to turn on the offense,” USA big man Tyson Chandler said.
First up for the United States is Croatia, a team that has familiar faces in the line-up but a new coach in Josip Vrankovic – a Croatia player that won the bronze medal at the 1994 FIBA World Championship in Toronto.
It was a great period of Croatian basketball.
“That was a different time because we had four NBA players in that team,” Vrankovic said on Friday.
“Of course, maybe the USA are one of the best teams that can take the championship while the rest of the teams in our group are not far apart.
“My aim is for us to play hard no matter who we play. You must prove everything on the court.”
All eyes are on Croatia’s Ante Tomic, who excelled at Real Madrid after moving to Spain in mid-season from long-time club Zagreb.
“He went from a smaller club to Madrid and he got used to playing at a high level so that’s very good for us,” Vrankovic said.
“He went from being maybe the 13th player for Croatia to one of the top four players.”
Iran, who face Brazil on opening day, lost scoring machine and inspirational captain Samad Nikkah Bahrami to injury less than a week before the start of the World Championship.
Iran still have Hamed Haddadi, a 7ft 2in center who is coming off a good year with the Memphis Grizzlies, and veteran point guard Mehdi Kamrani.
Haddadi may be able to take advantage of Anderson Varejao’s expected absence for Brazil on Saturday, with the NBA big man troubled by an ankle injury.
Then again, Brazil are deep and talented and Tiago Splitter will be a force down low in this tournament.
Slovenia are not to be taken lightly.
New coach Memi Becirovic, whose first game is against Tunisia, said: “My hope is that we will play well and have a great World Championship. We didn’t play well in the pre-season but this is something different.
“And we also have a lot of supporters who are coming. We are expecting 3,000 of our fans and they give us a lot of confidence.”
Tunisia qualified for Turkey 2010 by beating Cameroon in the bronze-medal game at the FIBA Africa Championship.
Their high-scoring forward, veteran Amine Rzig, said: “Slovenia is a good team. They have good players inside so we’ll have to really concentrate, play hard and try to win the first game.”