BARCELONA, Spain (AP) – On a map, Slovenia is a mystery to the U.S. basketball team.
“Do you know where Slovenia is?” center DeMarcus Cousins was asked by a European journalist Monday.
“No,” Cousins responded. “Do you know where Alabama is?”
On the basketball court, the Americans know exactly where to look: on the perimeter.
Goran Dragic and the Slovenians are a small team that thrives on the outside but struggles to defend the interior. The Americans will look to ride their size advantage to a quarterfinal victory Tuesday at the Basketball World Cup.
The teams met in an exhibition game just before the tournament, and the Americans cruised to a 101-71 victory. Anthony Davis scored 18 points and Kenneth Faried added 14 as the U.S. big men dominated their undersized foes.
“They do not defend in their normal practice a lot of the stuff that we do, so they’re not accustomed to being inside,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “So our guys have to take advantage of that. Not so much posting, but for offensive rebounds.”
Krzyzewski was quick to note that the Slovenians were managing Dragic’s minutes in the exhibition and that they have since improved.
“But for us, too, we’ve gotten better since then,” Krzyzewski said.
And Slovenia hasn’t gotten bigger.
Only five players on its roster are 6-foot-7 or taller, while the U.S. roster lists eight players who are at least that big. The Americans had a whopping 50-22 advantage in points in the paint in the first game, though the 6-foot-11 Cousins wouldn’t say that bigger always means better.
“Slovenia’s a tough team. It doesn’t really matter the size I would say,” he said. “Everybody has a different type of playing style and I think our playing style kind of wore them down. So hopefully we could do that the next game as well.”
Cousins wasn’t much of a factor then, but has emerged as a powerful weapon off the bench for the Americans. He has scored in double figures in each of the last three games, and shot 5 for 5 in two of them, including Saturday’s 86-63 victory over Mexico.
Slovenia advanced with a 71-61 victory over the Dominican Republic behind 12 points from Dragic, the Phoenix Suns’ star point guard, and 18 from his brother, Zoran.
The Slovenians went into the final day of the group stage in position to avoid the Americans until the semifinals, but their loss to Lithuania, following Australia’s loss to Angola, dropped Slovenia into the other half of the U.S. bracket. The basketball governing body FIBA is investigating Australia’s loss because it appeared the players may have stopped trying to defend late. The loss moved the Australians out of a potential quarterfinal matchup with the U.S., however they lost the first elimination game to Turkey.
“It’s too bad that we have now USA, but of course we cannot do nothing. We just go to face them and try to win,” Zoran Dragic said.
With the Dragic brothers leading the way, Krzyzewski said the Slovenians can put five 3-point shooters on the floor at one time. But if they’re not hitting, the U.S. can swarm Goran Dragic, as it did in holding him to 3-for-11 shooting in the exhibition rout.
Dragic was in foul trouble that night, as were plenty of teammates who struggled to defend bigger players. The U.S. shot 46 free throws, while Slovenia was just 10 of 17.
The winner will face Lithuania or Turkey on Thursday night.
Krzyzewski said the Americans have to forget the warmup game, and Faried said there was no game plan to pound the ball inside like last time. As for the basketball cliche that a good big team beats a good small team?
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” Faried said. “If we win, then hey, the cliche is right. But if we don’t, then hey, the cliche was wrong. So we don’t know.”
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