Tall Blacks primed for pressure in last phase
Now it gets serious. The Tall Blacks are set for a dose of hoops reality as their World Cup buildup tour hits the last and most important phase in Lithuania and Serbia.
After breezing through a lightweight schedule in China with a clean sweep of all six games and twin tournament victories, the New Zealanders are well aware that the road suddenly gets steep.
The Tall Blacks wrapped up their Chinese tour on Saturday with a 97-63 victory over Ivory Coast behind 27 points from Kirk Penney and 20 from Corey Webster. Combined, the sharpshooters went 11-of-20 from three-point land as the Kiwis also out-rebounded the big Africans 45-25.
Now they head to Lithuania where they will follow a short training camp with games against the hosts, Slovenia and Greece, before moving to Serbia for back-to-back internationals against the European hoops powerhouses.
"We're at a good stage now as we move on to Europe," coach Nenad Vucinic said. "We expect it to be as tough as it gets over the next five games, and that's going to be good for us. We want to build our game and play the best basketball we can."
Vucinic said these next five games were now all about hitting the level they'll need to play at in Spain when they face arguably the most competitive pool of the tournament.
"We always try to get the hardest possible schedule. We're never afraid of losing in the pre-tournament situation. Apart from Kirk Penney, our players don't play [regularly] at that level so we want to play the best teams in the world, and that's what we're going to do now."
Vucinic isn't getting too carried away with results so far, but felt the speed and aggression of the Koreans had been a good starting point, and in China he was rapt with the rebounding effort of his under-sized team. They've also tried some different defensive schemes and got Penney and Webster into handy form.
Fit-again big man Nick Horvath said the players were looking forward to the most serious challenge of this buildup tour.
"We are playing four of the great teams of Europe and we are really looking forward to seeing how we stack up with our execution against some of the best players in the world," he said.
"They will be extremely well drilled, they have some of the best players in Europe and some NBA players on their rosters."
These next five games are also when Vucinic will make what he's calling a "nightmare" decision between Horvath and Casey Frank as his sole naturalised player for Spain.
Frank is the incumbent and it's Horvath's task to play his way in against world-class opposition. Horvath has the extra size the team needs; Frank has the edge in familiarity.