- Associated Press - Friday, September 3, 2010

ISTANBUL (AP) - With the field down to 16 teams, the knockout stage of the basketball world championship begins Saturday with two highly anticipated matchups.

Balkan rivals Serbia and Croatia, who fought a war in the early 1990s, play the opening game at the Sinan Erdem Dome. That’s followed by defending champion Spain vs. Greece, two of the pre-tournament favorites. Spain beat Greece for the title four years ago in Japan.

On Sunday, it’s Slovenia-Australia, followed by unbeaten host Turkey against France.

The United States plays Angola and Russia faces New Zealand on Monday, before Lithuania faces China and Argentina plays Brazil on Tuesday.

Brazil coach Ruben Magnano will be facing some of the same Argentine players he led to gold in the 2004 Olympics and silver in the 2002 worlds.

“Major tournaments, like the world championships and the Olympics can be very cruel at times,” the Argentina native said.

The long rest before Brazil’s game gives Anderson Varejao more time for to recover. The Cleveland Cavaliers forward grabbed 12 rebounds Tuesday in just his second game after sitting out the first three with a sprained right ankle. He’ll have to lead the defensive effort against Argentina’s Luis Scola of the Houston Rockets, who leads the tournament with 29 points per game.

“To try to stop him, it’s not easy, we know that,” Varejao said. “It’s for a reason he’s the scoring leader in the tournament. But we believe we can do that, we can do a good job against him.”

The U.S. wasn’t sharp in its final two games of group play, but guard Chauncey Billups compared those matchups against Iran and Tunisia to an NBA team taking it easy in its final two regular-season games before the playoffs.

“That’s over with now, and now we can get to the meat and potatoes,” Billups said.

The Americans are expected to get to the semifinals.

“When it comes to basketball, people expect us to win and play well all the time and win every tournament, win every game,” center Lamar Odom said. “And basketball’s played all over the world now, there’s a balance of talent spread throughout the world.”

Angola finished fourth in Group A. The perennial African champions lost all five games at the 2008 Olympics, where the U.S. beat them 97-76, but bounced back to advance to the knockout stage for the second straight time in the world championship.

“We know we are going to play a tough and athletic Angola team that played us really well in the Olympics two years ago,” guard Stephen Curry said. “We’re going to be ready.”

Russia has slipped since its surprising European championship in 2007, while New Zealand has Kirk Penney, the tournament’s second-leading scorer at 25.4 points per game.

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