August 21, 2011

Indian Women at 24th FIBA Asia Championship: A Preview

*Photos here are all from India's games at the 2009 FIBA Asia Basketball Championships in Chennai

There are at least half a dozen little cliched phrases bouncing around in my head right now when trying to describe the challenge that the Indian basketball team are soon about to face at the 24th FIBA Asia Championship for Women in Omura, Japan. Baptism by fire. Against all odds. Backs against the wall.

Because what India are about to face (actually, what they have already started facing, since I wrote this after our first game against Chinese Taipei), is their toughest, most brutal stretch of basketball in recent memory. India finished 6th at the FIBA ABC in Chennai in 2009, and it was good enough for us to qualify in the 'Level 1' of the championship this year. What it means that we will be playing most of our games against the best teams in Asia this time. India is ranked #41 in the world FIBA rankings; In the five days between August 21-25, India will play five games, against Chinese Taipei (rank 22), Korea (9), Asian Champions China (8), hosts Japan (15), and Lebanon (55). That means that, apart from Lebanon, each team we will face will be ranked far above us. Even Chinese Taipei, who are the lowest of the 'Big 4' in our group, defeated us by 45 points at the William Jones Cup a few weeks ago.

Indeed, its going to be tough pickings for India's new coach Pete Gaudet, who has spent barely two and half months at the helm of the team after a career that spanned 40 years in basketball, mostly holding on to assistant coaching roles in NCAA D1 colleges like Duke, Vanderbilt, and OSU. Gaudet got a chance to test the team out a little at the William Jones tournament in Taiwan two weeks ago, where India got just 1 victory - albeit a wonderful won - over the Korea 'Samsung' team.

The 2011 Women's FIBA ABC is divided into two levels: Level I and Level II. The two lowest finishers of Level I meets the top two finishers to determine which teams qualify for the top Level of the 2013 championship. The losers are relegated to Level II. India and Lebanon are likely to be these two teams. Level II consists of six teams all ranked below India (Indonesia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan). For India to remain in Level I in 2013 and have a chance to actually enter the knock-out stage of the tournament, they will have to beat a team that has finished in the top 2 from Level II.

There is of course the other possibility that India perform a miracle and finish in the top 4 of Level I. Unlikely, I know, but I still have to discuss the possibility: it that happens, we will enter the Semi-Final round of the championship.

As for our team: once again, everything India does will start and end with our inspirational, superstar Center, Geethu Anna Jose. Geethu was the best individual performer in the 2009 championships and is the only Indian to complete a trial with WNBA teams. The 26-year-old is just entering her prime, and with a coach like Gaudet who is an expert on post play (he actually wrote a book about it), Geethu should once again be India's superstar.

Point guard Akanksha Singh captains the team for the first time, and is one of the best ball handlers I've seen in India. Alongside her in the starting line-up will be India's former captain and Akanksha's older sister, Prashanti Singh, and their Delhi teammate, Raspreet Sidhu. Anitha Pauldurai, who was one of the best players for India at the William Jones Cup, rounds up the starting five. India's bench will really have to step up and I have a feeling that many of them will not be getting a lot of minutes at the FIBA ABC, forcing greater strain on the starters. Girls like Pushpa Maddu and Kokila Subramani have the potential to have good stretches. I'm also excited about 16-year-old Shireen Limaye, who made her Indian debut at the William Jones Cup and will become one of our best players in the future.

Yes, India will lose a lot, and yes, India will lose big, but let's not lose heart: India has qualified into Level I, and have 'earned' the opportunity to lose big against Asia's biggest, instead of playing less meaningful games against the second-tier teams. Even if we don't make it to the top 4, hopefully we can put up a good performance against Lebanon and in our qualifying round match against a Level II team.

Improvement will come step by step: We finished at 6th place in Chennai. I predict that our girls will be able to do one better, finish 5th this time around, and a better, badder team will return in 2013 after a couple of years with Coach Gaudet and aim for greater heights.

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