November 1, 2011

India’s U16 Boys coach JP Singh: “We felt we could beat any team except for China”

10th place in 2009, 10th place in 2011: if the final result is to be believed, there was no improvement in the basketball team that represented India at the 2nd U16 FIBA Asia Championship which recently concluded in Nha Trang City, Vietnam. India finished the tournament having won three games, lost five, and finishing, just like the tournament two years ago, at 10th place.

But look closer and you’ll see that, perhaps for the first time in recent memory, India returned from a top Asian-level tournament glowing with confidence of being able to look any opponent in the eye, and also earning the respect of all the teams they went against. Usually the whipping boys of Asia, India U16’s elite defensive ability and improving talent level ensured that they couldn’t be ignored by the opposition anymore.

“We began to feel very confident with ourselves as a team, in our defense, and in our talent during this championship,” said Jai Prakash ‘JP’ Singh, the head coach of this side and the mastermind behind India’s improvement, “Our boys approached every game feeling that they could get something out of it.”

Singh, who works at Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, exhumed his confidence as India were pooled with China, Malaysia, and Chinese Taipei, all teams previously ranked higher. India started the championship with a huge loss to the tournament’s eventual champions, China. “The China game was almost like a practice game for us, because they were miles ahead in talent,” said Singh, “They are the strongest and most-feared team in Asia, and you can see that they won every single game by a large margin, up until the final against Korea which they won by 40 points!”

But even in this big loss was a silver lining: India may not have been able to get many points on the board (27), but they also managed to hold China to their lowest point total in the entire tournament (64).

Things got better for India from then onwards, as they crushed Malaysia in the second game by 53 points, and, in perhaps their best performance of the tournament, defeated a traditionally much-stronger Chinese Taipei side by 21 points.

“This is a team that prides itself on defense,” said Singh, after India held Malaysia and Taipei to 40 and 52 points respectively. “We started everything on the defensive end. Against Taipei, a much-more experienced team than ours, I thought that some of our players may get nervous and start making mistakes. Instead, it was the Taipei players who began to struggle to score on us as our defense grew stronger."

It was in the Second Round that the heartbreak began for India, with consecutive close losses against usual Asian powerhouses, Lebanon, Korea, and Iraq. “We gave a fight in all three games and just couldn’t finish them right,” said Singh.

But even though India lost and were knocked out from a chance of reaching the tournament’s Quarter-Finals, Singh felt that his players gained a new sense of confidence. “We knew that the opposition were now looking at us with new-found respect; they knew that we would give them a battle. We felt that, if we worked that it, we could beat any of the other teams – Korea, Japan, Taipei – except for China.”

Singh lamented that India’s chances for the Quarter-Finals were also hampered by the tournament match-ups. In the Second Round, teams qualified from Group A were to play teams qualified from Group B. But most of the easier opponents, Singh felt, were in Groups C and D. “We would’ve had a better chance of qualifying had we played some of the other teams who qualified for the next round, such as Indonesia, Qatar, or Vietnam.”

After shrugging off hosts Vietnam in a classification game, India lost the 9th spot to a buzzer-beater by Chinese Taipei’s Lu-Kuan Shiuan in a rematch against the side we had defeated handedly only days ago. Still, it wasn’t enough to dampen the spirit and the optimism of the players. “We may not have improved our position, but we were able to come back feeling much better about our performance, particularly our defense,” Singh added.

That defense was manned in the middle by Satnam Singh Bhamara, India’s behemoth young Center, a 15-year-old seven-footer who had already gained experience by representing India in the senior side at the 26th FIBA Asia Championship. Bhamara was a beast on both sides of the floor, having the highest scoring average of any player in the tournament, despite only clocking 24 minutes per game. Defensively, Bhamara’s size and post defense kept other attacking players at bay.

Troy Justice, the Director of Basketball Operations for NBA India, went to Vietnam to watch the team in action and was impressed by their improvement. On Bhamara, he said, “Satnam was one of the top three players at this championship. We saw his ability to change the game at both ends of the floor. He controlled the boards effectively and for difficult for the other teams to stop.”

Justice also credits India’s improvement to its defense, mostly because India had the size and athletic ability which was matched only by two other teams at the tournament: China and Lebanon. “Defensively, India stood out as one of the best. We matched up against teams like China with our size, with players like Satnam, Rakesh Sangwan, and Ajay Pratap Singh all big for their respective positions.”

Having spent considerable time in India working with young players at the grassroots level, Justice noted a considerable improvement in talent for this youth side. “This was a very talented team, we knew that, and I think all the other teams in the tournament knew it, too. Satnam and Ajay were two key players for India and both performed well; Rakesh was India’s most improved player.”

The group of players has now returned to India, and spread back to their different directions, but Coach JP Singh remains cautious about their future.

“This is a special group,” he says, “And they could improve on their performance in two years when they play in the U18 FIBA Asia Championship. But to do that, the important thing is to make sure that they continue to be disciplined as they improve as basketball players. The next two years are tricky for kids of this age group, but if they are provided the correct discipline and a similar type of training leading up to the U18 championship, we could see them work wonders again.”

"The Basketball Federation of India and the Sports Authority of India had a big hand in giving this team the opportunity," Singh added, "If we keep up the same type of training and discipline in the future, these type of performances can be repeated and improved."

It seems that perhaps this team’s biggest achievement could be a long term impact: they have been able to put up a first step forward to change the mindset of India as easy opponents in Asian championships. Additionally, their performance will also serve as encouragement to other young players who feel that they can now dream of stepping out into any Asian arena with their heads up high.

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