By David Hein
Reigning champions Russia start the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland as a team weakened by injuries and departures ahead of their Group B opener against Latvia.
The 2007 title-winning coach David Blatt is missing the likes of J.R. Holden, Andrei Kirilenko as well as late injury setbacks to big men Viktor Khryapa and Sasha Kaun. In fact, Blatt will be without the entire starting five from the historic night in Madrid two summers ago.
Blatt has been forced to form a team of inexperienced players led by returnees Anton Ponkrashov and Sergey Monya, who combined to average 7.9 points in Spain 2009, and naturalized American Kelly McCarty.
Latvia enter the tournament as a motivated and confident bunch, especially since they consider themselves as strong as ever in their nation's history.
Coach Kestutis Kemzura has two superb big men in Andris Biedrins and Kaspars Kambala and how those two can function together could lead the Latvians deep into the tournament.
Point guard Kristaps Valters does a good job leading the team and Kemzura has a group of shooters to open up things in the middle for the big men while the Latvians love to get out on the run as well - something the Russians would like to hinder.
Head to Head: Russia is 4-0 all time against Latvia with the last meeting coming in the 5-8 place games at the 2001 EuroBasket, where Russia won 99-81.
Key Match-up: Latvians Andris Biedrins and Kaspars Kambala vs. Timofey Mozgov and Sergey Monya. The showdown in the paint could well decide this encounter. The question is if Mozgov and Monya - the latter actually a small forward - can slow down Latvia's two low post monsters. The only help for Russia would come from Fedor Dmitriev - but he is not nearly as massive as Kambala or athletic and long as Biedrins.
X-Factor: Kelly McCarty. Russia's latest American-born player is not the playmaker that 2007 hero J.R. Holden was. But the small forward McCarty is a big play guy who can also score in bunches - something Russia coach David Blatt may need plenty of.
Key stat: Three. That is the number of returning players Blatt has back from the 2007 title-winning team - point guards Anton Ponkrashov and Sergey Bykov as well as forward Sergey Monya.
Sounding off: "The first game is always the pressure game I would say for every team ... We will be nervous and it will be a pressure game tomorrow. So who will calm down and play smarter will have more chances to win." -Latvia coach Kestutis Kemzura