Wednesday September 8th, 2010

Thursday marks the 38-year anniversary of the most famous international basketball game in history, the Soviet Union's controversial victory against the United States in the gold-medal game at the 1972 Olympics.

As the U.S. team looks to avoid a similar result Thursday, here are five things to watch for in its FIBA World Championship quarterfinal matchup against Russia.

The Russians boast the biggest front line the United States has faced in the tournament. The 7-foot-1 Timofey Mozgov, who signed with the Knicks this summer, is the team's leading scorer, and the Russians can roll out 6-11 Sasha Kaun (11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds) and 6-11 Alexey Zhukanenko. Toss in 6-9 power forward Andrey Vorontsevich, who ranks among the top 15 players in rebounding (6.8), and Russia is one of the most physical teams in the competition. Team USA has been surprisingly effective on the glass -- it ranks first in rebounds per game (41.8), and Kevin Love, Kevin Durant and Lamar Odom all slot in the top 30 individually -- but the Americans will have their hands full with Russia's size.

"Their average height is 6-8," USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They'll be the biggest team that we've played against. The center position has been an amazingly productive position with Kaun and Mozgov. They combine for like 24 points and 10 rebounds a game, which you would like for any center position. And just the fact they play a real physical brand of basketball ... we have to be ready for that."

The three-point shot has been a huge weapon for the U.S., with Eric Gordon, Durant and Chauncey Billups emerging as dangerous shooters from behind the line. Russia, however, is allowing opponents to shoot only 28 percent from three-point range, the second-lowest percentage in the tournament.

"We just need to move the ball around," Derrick Rose said. "Every day, we have been working on motion. Just when we come down, make sure the ball is not just sitting in one spot on the floor. Make sure we pass it around and everybody touches it and make sure we play team basketball."

The Russians are expected to utilize a 2-3 zone and try to muscle the U.S. team with their big guards on the perimeter and their size in the paint. As effective as the U.S. was from beyond the arc against Angola (47.4 percent), it's important for the team not to settle for too many threes and attack Russia.

Russia is hardly a prolific scoring team. Without Andrei Kirilenko or J.R. Holden, the Russians rely on a balanced attack that features a lot of ball movement and works the shot clock. Team USA wants to play in transition. If the Americans can build an early lead, Russia will be hard-pressed to find a way to come back.

Free-throw shooting has been a bit of an Achilles' heel for the U.S. The Americans have connected on 72.8 percent of their freebies (eighth in the tournament). The Russians will gladly take a foul and send the U.S. to the line if it means stopping a fast break, and Team USA will have to convert there when they do.

A relative unknown in the U.S., Blatt, a Louisville, Ky., native who has coached the Russian national team since 2007, has established himself as one of the premier coaches in the Eastern Hemisphere. He has coached Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Efes Pilsen (Turkey), Benetton Treviso (Italy), Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Aris Thessaloniki (Greece).

Blatt, 51, is eager for an opportunity to coach in the NBA and says this will be his final tournament as Russia's coach. A win over the U.S. would be a significant boost to a résumé that already has at least one major shocker. In the gold-medal game at the 2007 EuroBasket in Madrid, Blatt's Russian team stunned Spain.

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