By David Hein
Exactly two years to the date after beating Croatia in the Qualifying Round on their way to clinching the EuroBasket 2007 title, reigning champions Russia face off against Croatia again knowing a victory is very much needed to think about reaching the Quarter-Finals.
David Blatt's Russians were disappointed when Germany advanced because that meant they came into the Qualifying Round with an 0-2 record with a long way to go to the final eight.
Blatt admits he's cautiously optimistic about the Friday encounter in Bydgoszcz against Jasmin Rapesa's Croatians in the first game in Group E.
|Nikola Vujcic has played well for Croatia.|
The Russians played tough defense in all three games but have little to show for their efforts, other than that youthful inexperience too often rules over strong effort.
If Blatt's young side can improve a bit in their rebounding - the second-worst rebounding team remaining in the tournament - and free throw shooting - second worst foul shooting team left in Poland - then chances are better.
Croatia meanwhile hope that their second half against F.Y.R. of Macedonia is the real Croatian team some believe are possible title contenders.
Rapesa's men fell behind F.Y.R.O.M. by 17 points in the first half but took over the game with a 25-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarter. EuroBasket 2009 fans are waiting for the real Croatia to finally show their face for good.
Head to Head: Russia lead the head-to-head series 4-3 and have faced off in the last three EuroBasket tournaments. In 2007, Russia knocked off Croatia 83-70 in Qualifying Round Group E action on their way to the title.
Last Time Out: Russia lost their last game of the Preliminary Round Group B with a 69-64 loss against France. Croatia notched their second win of Group A by beating F.Y.R. of Macedonia 81-71.
Key Match-up: Nikola Vujcic vs Timofey Mozgov. The 31-year-old Croatian veteran Vujcic has played a strong tournament thus far and could cause problems for the 23-year-old Mozgov, who finally was able to avoid fouling out against France. Mozgov played 34 minutes against the French after fouling out against Latvia and Germany in a total of 23 minutes played. And with Russia lacking low post players, Mozgov's foul issues will be paramount.
X-Factor: Anton Ponkrashov. The Russian playmaker seems to have become coach David Blatt's point guard of choice over Sergey Bykov. Ponkrashov played 30 minutes against France after just 25 combined in the first two games and dished out eight assists and scored seven points. But he shot just 2 of 10 from the field while drawing Blatt's ire for trying to back down the smaller Tony Parker on offense even though that play is not in the Russian system. But his scoring ability could be crucial for the Russians.
Key stats: 11.0. Croatia trail only Serbia with the second fewest number of turnovers committed per game with 11.0. Russia have the second best opponent field goal percentage at 39.4 percent. And that means that the Croatian point guards will have to do a good job controlling the tempo of the game and getting their teammates in the right spots.
Sounding off: "We didn't play well in the first round, but we're still here and we need to continue to play like we did in the second half of the last game. We never lose confidence, and never think about the option that we can lose. Russia will play for their life to survive so it will make it more difficult for us. I'm more worried about my team than about the opponent, because if we play tough as we can we shouldn't have problems. But we didn't do that all the time so far. They have a lot of good players, but I think Kelly McCarty is the person we need to stop, and we'll have to do a team work to make it happen." -Croatia center Marko Banic