Written off Croatia stand in way of USA's historic U19 title repeat
HERAKLION (2015 FIBA U19 World Championship) - Reigning champions United States are shooting for a historic repeat at the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship as they attempt to become the first team to defend their title since they last accomplished the feat themselves back in 1983.
Standing in the way as the last hurdle before the finish line are Croatia, who go for their first crown while appearing in their first Final.
It will be the second time the teams face off against each other in Heraklion as the United States beat Croatia 103-81 on the second day of group play. Both teams have gone through further development - not quite as one would expect in the case of Croatia.
The United States finally faced a stiff test in Saturday's Semi-Finals as they fended off hosts Greece 82-76 for their sixth straight victory in Greece.
It was also the Americans' 17th straight win at the U19 Worlds since losing to Russia in the 2011 Quarter-Finals.
The Americans continue to improve on their chemistry and a group of leaders has emerged, topped off by the trio of 2014 FIBA U17 world champions consisting of Harry Giles, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum as well as 2014 FIBA Americas U18 champion Jalen Brunson at point guard. Giles has elevated his game to superstar level in Greece with double-doubles in his last four games.
If the Americans were to win, it would give them six U19 titles - five more than one-time winners Serbia, Greece, Lithuania, Australia, Spain and Yugoslavia.
Croatia, meanwhile, head into Sunday's title bout with four straight victories since losing to the Americans, including a downright demolition of Turkey in the Semi-Finals.
This was not quite the make-up of the Croatian team that observers had in mind when their mouths were watering after the draw was announced and saw the United States and Croatia in the same group, meaning they could meet again in the Final.
Point guard Lovro Mazalin got injured just before the tournament and then came the Dragan Bender shoe contract dispute, which resulted in the All-Star Five candidate heading home without playing a minute.
The Croatians lost a third member of their planned starting five after the group stage when center Ante Zizic was forced to leave Greece with a groin injury.
The departure of Zizic has opened the door for Ivica Zubac to step up in the low post while Croatia captain Marko Arapovic has taken his game to an entirely new level, playing his way into All-Star Five consideration.
Croatia essentially used six players to manhandle Turkey, but in the fourth quarter, Arapovic carried one of those six, Borna Kapusta, off the court. And the point guard's status for the Final is unclear after suffering an ankle injury.
Croatia have already accomplished more than they ever had in U19 Worlds history. And they have already been written off twice - against Canada in the Quarter-Finals and versus Turkey in the Semis.
The United States are clearly the favourite but as Croatian guard Nik Slavica said: "Never underestimate an injured team."