Oh, it was all good just a few weeks ago. In India's first game at the 2011 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship, we held a seven point lead in the final quarter over Lebanon, a team ranked 26 places above us in the FIBA world rankings. We ended up losing that game, by the way, and then, losing everything else that came in our way. A week later, our campaign ended with a loss to Indonesia as we finished the championship at 14th place. That was a depressing finish to my cautiously optimistic hopes before the tournament. Now, the tournament is over, and after weeks of unpredictable and exciting basketball, there is a familiar name at the top of the rankings.
In front of an electric crowd in Wuhan, hosts China rose to the top of FIBA Asia after a silver medal two years ago by edging out the tough Jordan side 70-69 in a classic final of the championship on Sunday. Led by tournament MVP Yi Jianlian, China claimed the gold medal and booked their place in the 2012 Olympic Games basketball tournament in London.
The final win was a culmination of a perfect 9-0 record in the competition. China lifted the FIBA ABC trophy for the 15th time.
Jordan walked out of the arena with their heads held high having entered the gold medal game for the first time. Jordan did extremely well beyond expectations to keep the contest even till the final buzzer. Despite finishing 2nd in their preliminary round group, and fourth in the second round group, Jordan did the impossible by defeating last year's champs Iran in a classic Quarter Final and then getting a win over a strong Philippines side in the Semis.
For China, Yi accounted for 11 of his team-high 25 points in the third quarter. Yi also had 16 points in the final. Yi continues to confound me, as he is such a dominant force back home but a super-flop in the NBA. Supposed to be China's next big thing after Yao, Yi has bounced around 3 NBA teams in the past four years, and has put up just 8.5 ppg in the course of his career, where he has never been able to earn major NBA minutes. He had his worst year with the Wizards last season, playing only 17.7 minutes a game and putting up just 5.6 ppg. He comes back home and completely DOMINATES Asia, averaging 16.6 ppg and 10.8 rpg as MVP of the championship.
Rasheim Wright was at the vanguard of the Jordanian cause in the Final with a game-high 26 points.
Earlier on Sunday, the 3rd/4th place match-up between Korea and Philippines was also a nail biting affair, won by Korea 70-68. Sungmin Cho led the way for Korea with 20 points. The high-scorers for Philippines were Marcus Douthit (27) and Jim Alapag (17).
All Tournament Team:
Meanwhile, the Indian contingent completed the tournament with a 1-4 record to end at 14th place. That record is misleading, by the way, because India didn't exactly 'win' a single game at the tournament: we were handed a victory in our 13-16 classification game over Qatar without even playing them. Qatar were made to forfeit their games after their players 'deliberately lost' a couple of earlier games after five of their players were disqualified without proper nationality documentation.
And we started off as well as we possibly could! Grouped with tough Lebanon and Korea, and with Malaysia, a team we were expected to beat, India needed just one win to move on to the next round. India played without a consistent starting lineup: Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Jagdeep Singh, and Yadwinder Singh were our regular starters, and the other two places were rotated between Hareesh Koroth, TJ Sahi, and Trideep Rai.
We almost got our one win unexpectedly, against Lebanon. After trailing by 13 at the end of halftime, India went on an epic third quarter run, perhaps the finest quarter of basketball played by the Indian men's team in recent history, as they outscored the superpower Lebanon 32-14 behind a barrage of three and two pointers by Hareesh Koroth and TJ Sahi.
Less than two minutes away from the final buzzer, India held a one-point lead and were on the verge of making history. But a heroic performance by Lebanon's Jean Abd El Nour denied India its chance at history, as Lebanon survived to win 71-68. El Nour scored eight of his game-high 24 points in the dying minutes of the game to defeat the enthusiastic Indian outfit.
Hareesh Koroth had 20 points for India and TJ Sahi added 18.
The game against Malaysia the next night was to be our make or break game: we are ranked much higher than them, and if we had won, we would've immediately improved to our 13th place ranking from 2009 and had a chance to move into the final 12. But an end game burst by Malaysia saw them emerge as 71-67 winners and virtually clinched their place in the second round, giving India another last-minute heartbreak.
The game swung back and forth like a pendulum: India fell back once again at halftime in this match-up trailing to their opponents by 16 points at the break. But once again, India showed their third-quarter resolve, outscoring Malaysia 24-12 in the period and bringing the game close again. The fourth quarter see-sawed between both the sides, and with the game tied in the final minutes, lower-ranked Malaysia made a final run to edge out a close win.
Malaysia were led by Ban Sin Ooi, who scored 20 points in the game, although the game's best individual performance came from India's experienced big man Jagdeep Singh Bains, who had a heroic 25 points and 11 rebounds in the loss.
We were never expected to challenge Korea in our final group game, and we didn't: Korea scored the first eight points of the game and only grew in strength thereafter before romping through for a 84-53 win against India on Saturday to complete their Group A engagements with an all-win record. It was India's third consecutive loss in the tournament, which saw them finish at the bottom of the group and eliminated from the second round.
Trideep Rai’s 11 points was the only double digit score for India. Despite the disappointment, coach Natt looked at the positives after the game and commented: "We have a long way in terms of going anywhere in Asian competitions. But I think we are making a start with this young team."
Out of the Second Round and forced to settle for 13-16 qualification, India got a lucky break when we were handed a 20-0 win against Qatar because of the forfeit. We played Indonesia in the 13/14th place match, a team that, with all of our revamped efforts we should've defeated. But like our effort against Malaysia earlier, we once again came up short. India trailed most of the way in the competitive game and failed to close the gap between the two sides, as Indonesia won 84-75.
India’s sharp-shooter Hareesh Koroth continued his bright showing at the championship, with 22 points off the bench to lead all scorers in the game. India were close the whole game, and trailed by just seven points at halftime. Indonesia continued to slowly extend their lead, and a decent fourth quarter by the Indian side was a little too late to prevent the loss.
This tournament was the first large scale international exposure for the Indian team under new NBA coach Kenny Natt. Despite the low ranking, India showed flashes of their potential under the new coach, highlighted with the near-upset of Lebanon in their first game. It's tough to say why we under-performed against Malaysia and Indonesia, but perhaps the near-slaying of the giants Lebanon, and the eventual loss, may have been crushed the players' spirits a bit.
This tournament also gave the chance to several young Indian players to gain valuable experience, and the likes of Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh stepped up to make their contributions to the squad. Amjyot is the one player who really excites me for the future: playing limited minutes of the bench, Amjyot led India in rebounding (7.3 rpg) and had several important hustle points. Amjyot also averaged 1.8 blocks per game, good enough for second-place in the tournament, only to Iran's Hamed Haddadi, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies!
With 1.8 steals per game, India's TJ Sahi finished at joint first place with Sun Yue (China), Osama Daghles (Jordan), and Ibrahim Ahmad (UAE) in steals average.
Our best player was Hareesh Koroth, who led the team in scoring (15.3 ppg) and was our only consistent scoring threat. Jagdeep Singh played pretty well, too, averaging 12.5 ppg and 6.0 rpg in the championship.
The biggest disappointment was Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, our former captain and a personal favourite of mine. Playing major minutes, and usually, a major offensive force, Vishesh had 17 points TOTAL in the tournament, averaging just 4.3 points per game shooting an awful 16 perfect from the field. Ugh!
All the stats above, by the way, were compiled by Siddharth Sharma for SportsKeeda.
At the end, our ranking actually fell one place from 13th to 14th this year. So, where do we go from here? I made a note in a post last week about India's glaring weakness - the point guard position - and Coach Kenny Natt's desperate need to find a consistent general to lead our side. Beyond that, the future doesn't look too bad for us, actually. This tournament ended on a sad note, but we have a *very* young squad who will only get stronger with this experience. I am talking about our young under 20 bigs Amjyot and Amrit Pal who are on a fast-track to improvement. And of course there's 15 year old Satnam Singh Bhamara, who got limited minutes in the tournament but will be better off with the exposure of this big stage.
Natt had only a few months with this team to not only raise the talent level of the players at hand, but to also attempt to change the culture and improve the system of hoops in India. With this championship over, he now has two more years until the next one, two more years to train the future crop of Indian players, and to help us make that long-awaited 'baby step' improvement on the international stage.
Congrats for the win China; and India will be looking forward to 2013.