Basketball: Tall Blacks keen for battle with US

By Brenton Vannisselroy in Spain

Kiwi basketballers relish the opportunity to tackle world champion US team

Tall Blacks forward Tom Abercrombie is keen to pit his skills against the United States tomorrow.Picture / Getty Images
Tall Blacks forward Tom Abercrombie is keen to pit his skills against the United States tomorrow.Picture / Getty Images

The Tall Blacks are embracing the toughest challenge in international basketball.

Tomorrow morning, the New Zealand team, which lost their opening two Group C games at the 2014 World Cup, will face the United States in Bilbao, Spain.

The Americans are not only the reigning world and Olympic champions, but they have not lost a game since the 2006 world championships. They blow away most of their opponents by double digits and often win by 50-plus points.

However, Tall Blacks forward Tom Abercrombie welcomes the test and has been looking forward to the game ever since the draw was made.

"Playing the USA is a pretty special opportunity. You always hope to play against the best in the world and they're the best in the world right now," Abercombie said. "We're a little basketball country from New Zealand, coming up against the mighty US, what a great opportunity."

Mighty indeed. The USA squad, while not at full strength, still boasts 12 NBA stars, one of whom is a former league MVP. In contrast, there are only five fulltime professionals on the Tall Blacks roster, with four part-timers, two students and recent university graduate Rob Loe, who is looking to embark on a professional career.

"They're going to challenge every single pass, they're going to get out and run at every single opportunity and they test you in every single facet of the game," Abercrombie said. "We need to be absolutely locked on and giving it our very best just to stay with them."

The US convincingly won the previous two meetings against New Zealand: 102-56 at the 2000 Olympics and 110-62 at the 2002 world championships, but Abercrombie insists they want to do more than just save face.

"That's not what you think about as a player. You get out there and play your butt off and do everything you can and whatever happens, happens," he said.

Tall Blacks coach Nenad Vucinic echoed Abercrombie's sentiments.

"We're competitors; we won't just lie down on the floor," Vucinic said. "We will try to keep up with their pace and intensity and just play the game."

Vucinic plans to share his players' workload more evenly against the US, after relying heavily on his starters against the Dominican Republic.

"We'll rotate because we have to rotate not because we're giving up on the game. They play at the high pace, they're incredible athletes and we'll have to share the minutes a lot more," he said.

The US squad are well paid for their athleticism, with all of the players millionaires. In fact, the poorest paid player on their roster, Brooklyn Nets centre Mason Plumlee, will earn more than the entire Breakers roster next season. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is also a household name in the US and he reportedly receives more than US$6,000,000 a year to lead the Duke University programme.

Krzyzewski will have spent the rest day pouring over tape of the Tall Blacks, as he freely admitted after the Americans' win over Turkey that he had not seen New Zealand play. But he did study Turkey's come-from-behind victory over the Tall Blacks.

"I was watching Turkey but it looked like New Zealand should have won, or was [at least] in a good position [to win]. So if they had a chance to beat Turkey, they must be pretty good," Krzyzewski said. "We'll respect them with our preparation."

He was able to name one of the Tall Blacks. "I know from past competitions that [Kirk] Penney is a heck of a player."

USA v Tall Blacks3.20am tomorrow, live SS2

- NZ Herald

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