So on Tuesday night in Belgrade, the U.S. team escaped with a 68-66 victory in the final pool-play game prior to the medal round in the World University Games.
Every year one of the USA Basketball college-based teams heads overseas to play a true road game and the response is always the same: The Americans had no idea it would be this intense.
This happens countless times on these trips, whether it's in Argentina, Brazil or, as in the case this week, Serbia.
Coaches from the United States -- Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and Miami's Frank Haith -- were amazed by the intensity of the game, the crowd, the players and the overall atmosphere the U.S. team endured in front of 14,000 fans at the Belgrade Arena. This isn't like the Olympic team playing to an NBA-friendly crowd in Beijing, either. The Serbs and the U.S. don't exactly have the coziest relationship. Serbia was once part of Yugoslavia and NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999 over the conflict in Kosovo is a sore subject.
That's why it should come as no surprise that the U.S. delegation is heavily guarded on the trip and doesn't go anywhere without an armed presence.
And it should come as no shock that the intensity in the building was raw.
"Basketball is huge in Serbia. It's their national sport,'' Ryan said by phone from Belgrade on Wednesday. "I had heard about it, but until you're here, and you see it -- it's incredible."
The whistling by the fans during the final few possessions was apparently deafening. On three successive possessions, the Americans got to the line, only to miss five straight free throws: the first two by Penn State's Talor Battle, the next two by West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler and one more from Villanova's Corey Fisher before he made his second attempt.
"It was like playing at Duke or North Carolina,'' Haith said. "It was unbelievable. There was an intensity there, playing Serbia. It was one helluva win for us. They're good -- really good.''
Ryan had to go with more strength in this game, leaning on Clemson's Trevor Booker and Purdue's Robbie Hummel in the second half as foul trouble plagued the slender Jarvis Varnado of Mississippi State. Haith described Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica as a massive human being at "7-1, 290-something."
"People have no idea how awesome a win this was,'' Haith added.
The Americans may end up facing the Serbs in the gold-medal game if the favorites hold. The Americans play Bulgaria in the quarterfinals Thursday and would play the winner of Russia-Lithuania in a semifinal match Friday. The other bracket pits Serbia-Turkey and Germany-Israel. The championship game is Saturday.
If the U.S. is going to win this tournament, it might need another game from Battle like the one he had against the Serbs. He was 7-of-12 from the field, 3-of-6 on 3s and scored 17 points in 22 minutes. Battle wasn't the first choice to make the squad a few weeks ago at the trials in Colorado Springs. The expectation prior to the event was that Arizona's Nic Wise would earn the nod. But Battle, fresh off leading the Nittany Lions to the NIT title, won the job and has been a bit more consistent than Fisher at the point.
"He's really come a long way in my eyes as far as being a point guard,'' Ryan said. "He earned his way here and he continues to improve. I'll pay for it later when we play Penn State in the Big Ten. But he's getting great game experience and handling it well.''
Ryan said the end-of-game situations against the Serbs would have been disastrous had the U.S. not played three friendly games against Canada, Serbia and Russia upon arriving. He said the FIBA rules about who can call a timeout (only coaches) and where the ball can be taken out, playing with the widened lane and how to deal with the physical play all were racing through his head in the final harried moments of the game.
"We had several fouls where we supposedly fouled the 3-point shooter,'' Ryan said. "They are great floppers. They're like soccer players. They act like they've been shot, flailing their arms and legs."
Ryan said he just had to make sure the Americans forced a tough shot for Paunic at the end of the game, which he said they did.
Ryan will continue to massage the minutes with a deep frontcourt that has rotated playing time with Booker, Hummel, Varnado, Iowa State's Craig Brackins, Marquette's Lazar Hayward, North Carolina's Deon Thompson and Washington's Quincy Pondexter.
"This group has been so resilient and so equal in many ways,'' Ryan said. "It has been based on who we've been playing. They've all handled it well."
The Serbs had played their games at the Belgrade Arena while the Americans played their previous three games at other facilities. As long as the Americans continue in the medal round, they will be in the Belgrade Arena, which Ryan termed a beautiful facility.
"This was the ultimate road game,'' Haith said. "The fans were incredible."
• John Kuester has been a longtime NBA assistant who has certainly paid his dues in the league. Now Joe Dumars has given him the chance to be a head coach with the Detroit Pistons. But it's hard to forget or dismiss Kuester's lack of success as a college coach. He went 1-27 at George Washington in 1988-89. He coached at Boston University and GW over a seven-year period and had two winning seasons, both of which were at BU. His last college coaching gig was in 1990, so it's hard to fault him. But it's another reason any general statement about college coaches' making the transition to the NBA and whether they'll be successful has no merit. Sure, being an NBA assistant would help before becoming an NBA head coach. But does anyone really believe that Mike Krzyzewski wouldn't be successful as an NBA head coach after coaching the Olympic team to the gold medal? Do you really think Roy Williams couldn't cut it in the NBA after winning multiple titles with North Carolina? The only thing that matters is a good fit. Lon Kruger didn't have one when he took over Atlanta. Neither did Leonard Hamilton when he coached Washington.
• Cal released its schedule and the Pac-10 favorite has plenty of games to circle. The Bears will be in New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, likely against Syracuse with the possibility of playing Ohio State or North Carolina on the second night (Nov. 19-20). Winning at the Pit in New Mexico on Dec. 2 will be another solid challenge, but none will be as demanding as playing at Kansas on Dec. 22. The games to circle in the Pac-10 are the two against Washington -- Jan. 14 in Seattle and Feb. 13 in Berkeley -- and a four-game road swing to the Arizona schools and to the L.A. schools from Jan. 28 to Feb. 6.