SAPPORO — Argentina, Spain and Germany are countries known more for soccer than basketball, and Italy is in the same boat.
But like the Argentines, Germans and Spaniards, the Italians are ready to change that perception.
Italy quickly clinched a berth for the final round in Saitama when it opened with wins over China, Slovenia and Senegal in Group D of the FIBA World Championship 2006.
The 2004 Athens Olympics silver medalist then took on the United States on Wednesday and played arguably its most hard-fought, physical contest, only to fall 94-85.
Nonetheless, the game showed that the Italians are certainly a team that can win this tournament, even without a 211-cm forward Andrea Bargnani, who was the draft No. 1 pick by the Toronto Raptors in June.
Against Italy, Team USA scored fewer points than in its other games, and it was the first time that Team USA trailed at halftime. Carmelo Anthony saved the team by scoring 35 points, combining with a stingy American defense in the second half.
“The Italian team was magnificent,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “They have tough-minded players and shoot the ball very well. They are unselfish and tough to defend.”
U.S. assistant coach Mike D’Antoni, who is the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, spent 13 seasons as a players in the Italian League at Milan and knows a lot about Italian basketball.
“They are very disciplined, move the ball and play good defense. Italy is a solid team,” D’Antoni said.
One standout for this team is shooting guard Marco Belinelli. The 20-year-old had 25 points in the U.S. game. Belinelli has been the leading scorer of the team at 14.4, after Thursday’s 73-72 victory over Puerto Rico.
But Belinelli, who plays for Climamio Bologna, is not only a player to watch on the Italian team but is also one of the most talented youngsters in the whole tournament. He is expected to be selected in the NBA Draft, possibly next year as earliest.
“I think he should go to Duke first,” joked Krzyzewski, who coaches at Duke University. “We have a good Italian department there.”
D’Antoni said he has no doubt Belinelli can play in the NBA.
“He’s a great player,” D’Antoni said. “He can handle the ball well and shoot the ball well with the height at 6-5. He sees the floor very well and is just a complete player.
“He’ll be picked among top 20 (in the NBA Draft). I believe he’s got strong chance to make it to the NBA.”
Belinelli doesn’t seem to be sold on his playing in America just yet. He’d prefer to stay where he is a couple more years.
“If I play in Euroleague another one year or two, I may be able to play (in the NBA),” he said. “But we’ll see.”
He has the rest of the FIBA tournament to make up his mind, though. Play in the next round begins Saturday in Saitama.