Australia and New Zealand face-off against Asia-Pacific counterparts … basketball tournament kicks off. Video: FIBA Asia Cup
By Jeremaiah M. Opiniano in Adelaide
Basketball countries in the rugby-crazed Pacific will try to rule a merged Asia-Pacific regional zone when the quarterfinals of the new FIBA Asia Cup begin today in Beirut, Lebanon.
That is even if many countries in the ongoing continental hoops showcase did not send their best players.
Like Australia. With the merging of the old FIBA Asia and FIBA Oceania zones beginning this year, the world number 10 is tipped to rule the tournament over defending 2015 FIBA Asia champion China (number 14) this August 17th.
The other team that did not send its best players is world number 20 New Zealand. And even if it lost to Korea, 75-76, in Group D preliminary action, the Tall Blacks are primed to make it to the semi-finals.
Owing to changes in the format of FIBA’s international competitions, many countries across the world have opted to keep their players for the home-and-away 2019 FIBA World Cup qualifiers that begin this November 22. The new format for spots in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China are similar to that of football’s qualification format in the triennial FIFA World Cup.
Australia sent a crew made up players from its National Basketball League (NBL) led by Rio Olympics veterans David Andersen and Brad Newley. The country has eight NBA players —Patty Mills, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Joe Ingles, Thon Maker, Aron Baynes, and 2016 top rookie pick Ben Simmons— who can all form a formidable FIBA World Cup team. (Andersen plays in the French league as Newley returned to the NBL after a stint in the Spanish league).
And even with the NBL players towing the Boomers, Australia breezed past Japan (84-68), Hong Kong (99-58) and Chinese-Taipei (90-50). The Boomers will play a struggling Chinese team, with the latter playing minus former NBA center Yi Jianlian and NBA rookie Zhou Qi.
New Zealand, for its part, still topped Group C (the “Group of Death”) in Lebanon despite the loss to Korea. New Zealand, Korea and host Lebanon all had 2-1 win-loss cards but the Tall Blacks had the superior quotient.
New Zealand thumped Kazakhstan, 70-49 and endured a rowdy hometown crowd to beat Lebanon 86-82.
The Tall Blacks team in Beirut differs from the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying tournament squad in Manila last July 2016. Missing in Beirut include brothers Corey and Tai Webster, center Isaac Fotu, Thomas Abercrombie and Mika Vokuna. Only Shea Ili and Jordan Ngatai are remnants from the Manila squad who are in Beirut.
Adelaide 36er Mitch Creek banners the Boomers’ scoring binge during preliminary play (15.7 pts. per game) as his team balances its offensive arsenals. Meanwhile, Ili of the Wellington Saints (14.7 pts. per game) tows the Tall Blacks offense.
If Australia beats China and New Zealand hurdles Jordan August 17, the two face off in the semi-finals August 19.
But the other topnotchers in two other preliminary groups, Iran (Group A) and the Philippines (B), hope to make it to the Final Four as well.
Two-time FIBA Asia Champions Iran, with former NBA Center Hamed Haddadi and two others left from its previous champion squads, meet Lebanon today.
The biggest surprise is the smallest team, the Philippines. Without its naturalized American Andray Blatche and three-time Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) most valuable player June Mar Fajardo, and with only a week’s practice, Southeast Asia’s only qualifier upset China (96-87) and breezed past Iraq and Qatar to top Group B.
However, an old continental nemesis —Korea— awaits the Filipinos. Korea always breaks generations of Philippine teams in continental meets such as the old FIBA Asia Championships and the quadrennial Asian Games.
The breakthrough came at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships in Manila when the Philippines upset the Koreans and qualified for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
The now FIBA Asia Cup was previously called as the FIBA Asia Championships and the older Asian Basketball Confederation (ABC) Championships. The now FIBA World Cup was then the FIBA World Championship and the World Basketball Championships.
No matter who wins the Beirut conclave, results will not affect the FIBA World Cup Qualification matches. The home-and-away matches will be on November 2017 and on February, June, July, September and November 2018.
Australia is bracketed with Japan, the Philippines and Chinese-Taipei. New Zealand is grouped along with Korea, China and Hong Kong. Iran is the luckiest as it is bracketed with Kazakhstan, Iraq and Qatar.
The FIBA Asia zone offers seven slots for the 32-team FIBA World Cup in China. Australia, New Zealand (Oceania zone), Iran, the Philippines and Korea (Asia zone) played at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Jeremaiah Opiniano is an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Arts and Letters at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) in Manila, Philippines.