A tall order for Tall Blacks means no mistakes
Under-sized maybe, but Nenad Vucinic's Tall Blacks will not be under-prepared or under-powered as they again look to make some serious waves at the upcoming World Cup in Spain.
As ever, the task is going to be a tough one for the world No 19 ranked New Zealanders at the event, especially in the deepest and most competitive of the tournament's four groups.
Yes, they've drawn the "pool of death" in Bilbao. There are no easy games, no gimmes this time round. But on the flip side of the coin, outside of the powerhouse USA - unbackable favourites to defend their crown - the New Zealanders have their sights on four beatable opponents, if they get their side of the equation right.
That's essentially what it comes down to for this nice mixture of savvy international veterans and bright young prospects. On their day they can beat anyone but the top two or three nations on the planet, but if they're just a few percentage off, that tide can turn quickly.
If they find something near their best form they will have a very real chance of securing the wins they need to from Turkey, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine and Finland in their remaining pool games.
In other words, it's a pool where they could do very, very well, or disappointingly bad, with a bounce of the ball, or twist of a call potentially being the difference between success and failure. That's a fact of life at this level in the world's second biggest sport.
A top four finish is required to enter the first knockout round. A dream scenario for the Tall Blacks would be to come in third or even second and secure a potentially winnable round-of-16 game.
But progression is the minimum requirement for the New Zealanders who have qualified for the knockout rounds of the last three global events.
In 2002 they finished a memorable fourth overall in Indianapolis, and in 2006 and 2010 they made it as far as the round of 16 before being eliminated.
If anyone can cajole the Tall Blacks through the qualifying maze, it's coach Nenad Vucinic who's coming to the end of a 25-year involvement as either player or coach with the national team. He's a brilliant tactician and a savvy operator who understands the formula for success at this level.
And Vucinic's tactical nous is going to be vital for a not-so-Tall Blacks outfit who have had to go without a true centre after the withdrawal of both their legit seven-footers in Alex Pledger (injured) and Steven Adams (unavailable).
Their strength is very much on the perimeter where the world-class Kirk Penney, Tom Abercrombie and the emerging Corey Webster will spearhead the attack.
No matter. Small ball suits the Kiwi psyche in hoops. They enjoy the chance to spread the floor, to work their marksmen free from deep and to attack bigger defenders off the dribble. They play hard and as a team, and so far that's proven an effective formula at the highest level.
The buildup has also been as good as it could have been, with Vucinic having 16 games to sharpen his squad, the last 13 of them on the road.
These guys are match hardened, and though they've lacked a signature victory they have run Slovenia, Lithuania and Serbia - all ranked inside the world's top 13 - to the wire. They look ready. They look sharp, with youngsters such as Tai Webster, Isaac Fotu and Rob Loe rising to the level needed to complement the veteran core of Penney, Abercrombie, Mika Vukona, BJ Anthony and Casey Frank who won the duel with Nick Horvath for the lone naturalised player spot.
Vucinic says without Pledger and Adams he's been forced to go "unorthodox" in style which means being clever on offence and bringing out the smoke and mirrors on defence to contain the huge men they're up against.
The coach also took great heart from the 85-79 defeat to Lithuania on their home court with their referees which he figured would have been a victory against the world No 4 ranked team anywhere else in the world.
"That performance gave us a lot of encouragement. We're starting to see the way we're going to operate at the world champs."
Turnovers have been the chief concern throughout this tour, and it's been a tough process working that figure down from the early-20s to a more manageable 13 to 15.
"With the way we play, with small ball, sometimes we have to look for passing options that are not easy to make, therefore we're probably going to turn the ball over a bit more," Vucinic said.
"But if we don't do that it will limit our scoring options.
"Where we have to be better is with the travel call which is tighter in this part of the world. We have to adjust to that, we have to get the footwork right because we can't afford to give extra possessions away so easily."
Vucinic's focus in the final few days leading into the World Cup was very much around execution on defence.
"It's complicated stuff, it's our pick-and-roll and post defence which contains a lot of technicalities. We have to do it perfectly to counter the size and ability of the players we're playing against. That's going to be crucial for us."
It's a formula the Tall Blacks know well. Play hard, play smart and make their shots, and good things can happen. They certainly won't die wondering.
TALL BLACKS WORLD CUP CAMPAIGN
GROUP C IN BILBAO (all NZT) NZ v Turkey, August 31 2am NZ v Dominican Republic, August 31 10.30pm NZ v USA, September 3 3.30am NZ v Ukraine, September 4 1am NZ v Finland, September 5 1am. Top 4 teams will qualify for knockout round of 16 in Barcelona.
TURKEY - Ranking 7. Runnersup at the last world champs, the Turks don't have quite the star factor of four years ago with the New Orleans Pelicans' Omer Asik their sole NBA player. Buildup form has also been scratchy. Vucinic verdict: "They've got size, experience and will be very tough. But we'll certainly go hard at them in our first pool game."
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC - Ranking 26. The unknown quantity of the pool, this is just the second appearance by the Carribean nation at a global hoops event. They'll be athletic, quick and on their day will be hard to contain. Led by veteran NBA player Francisco Garcia. Vucinic verdict: "They are full of talent and will be very unpredictable. But they won't be as organised as the European teams."
USA - Ranking 1. May not have Paul George, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin or Kevin Love, but such is the depth in the greatest hoops nation on earth, they still send out a lineup oozing class and hot favourites to defend their title. Derrick Rose, Steph Curry and James Harden form a brilliant backcourt, while Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis spearhead the frontcourt. Vucinic verdict: "It's the USA. No matter who they put out on court it's going to be a powerful lineup."
UKRAINE - Ranking 45. Big, strong and solid, the World Cup newcomers – sixth at the European champs last year – will be no pushovers. Made a slow start in their buildup, but a recent win over France indicates they're on track. Vucinic verdict: "They have got some genuine size and a very good playmaker in their American naturalised player, Pooh Jeter. We will have to play well to beat these guys."
FINLAND - Ranking 39. The tournament wildcards will be no easybeats, as they showed when they twice pushed Andrej Lemanis' Boomers to the limit. Plenty of experience, a smattering of star quality, will have to be respected. Vucinic verdict: "A very good team. Not extremely talented in terms of personnel, but good hard-nosed Europe-experienced players, and their strength is their execution and teamwork."
- Sunday Star Times
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