July 30, 2013

Preview: India, Rebooted, head to Manila for the 27th FIBA Asia Basketball Championship

The team is set. The players are ready, practiced, and confident. And the coach has given them all his preperatory wisdom over the last few months as possible. For India's National Basketball Team, the 'Road to Manila' for the 2013 FIBA Asia Basketball Championship in the Philippines has concluded. And now, the continent's most prestigious basketball challenge awaits them ahead.

But before we look ahead, we should look back a little. There was a lot of optimism around Indian Basketball in 2011. The team was heading to Wuhan, China, for the 26th FIBA Asia Championship with a former NBA Coach Kenny Natt at the helm. They were packed with the perfect balance of youth and experience and loaded with some good young bigs. They had practiced hard and raised expectations. After finishing in the bottom half of the table year after year, there was some hope that this team could break into the top eight. They dominated the qualifiers and looked ready to make an upset or two.

Instead, the Wuhan 2011 campaign was an unfortunate failure. India returned from the tournament without a single win on the court, and earned a ‘victory’ only in the record books after Qatar was forced to forfeit their classification round game. India’s 1-4 record landed them at 14th place (out of 16 in Asia), and the Natt experiment saw their standing fall below even their previous finishes.

The rise of Indian Basketball took an abrupt pause soon after. The federation's head honcho Harish Sharma tragically passed away in early 2012 and Kenny Natt's sojourn with India ended earlier than expected, fizzling out a period of great promise and potential.

Two years after Wuhan, India's Basketball squad will get another shot at Asia's finest tournament, and this time around, the expectations have been curbed to allow a new rebooted generation of players and coaches to take some baby steps back into the path of improvement.

Formerly a head coach with NBDL side Texas Legends, Scott Flemming was appointment the Head Coaching position with India's Senior Men's squad late last year and has brought back some cautious optimism with a remodeled and younger Indian team. Flemming, who has promised to focus on bringing consistency and continuity to Indian Basketball, will face his biggest challenge starting on August 1, in India's first game against Bahrain. And expect the challenges to keep getting bigger from there on forth.

This will be India's 22nd appearance in the FIBA ABC, but their finest days - two fourth-place finishes back in the mid-60s and mid 70s - are decades behind them. India qualified for the tournament this year easily by winning the SABA (South Asian Basketball Association) Zone Qualifiers in New Delhi in early June against Afghanistan and Nepal. India's preperation for the FIBA ABC also took them to Turkey for the past 10 days, where they played against four clubs from the nearby region and won each game by impressive blowouts. Owing to the weak stature of their opponents so far, the team has looked dominant and been undefeated in the Flemming era.

Expect that to change against the big boys in Asia in the Philippines.

India have been drawn in the relatively easy Group D at Manila 2013, against Bahrain, Thailand, and Kazakhstan. Going strictly by the FIBA rankings, the only team 'better' than India in the group are Kazakhstan, by just one spot. If focused, India should not have any trouble against Bahrain and Thailand, and if truly ambitious, can dream of defeating the athletic Kazakhs, too.

The top three teams from the Group will move on to the Second Round Group F, where they will join the top three teams from the powerhouse Group C, which are most likely to be China, Korea, and Iran (Group C has Malaysia, too). If India make it to Group F, they will play their next three games against these three teams, and their accumulated points from the previous two rounds (or six games) will determine their standings for the Quarter-Finals of the event.

India hasn't made it to the top eight of the FIBA ABC since 2003, and have finished 12th, 15th, 13th, and 14th in subsequent years since in the biennial competition. If they can finish amongst top four of the six teams in Group F - a tough task since it will be near impossible to upstage powerhouses like China, Korea, and Iran - they will get entry into the top eight and the quarter-finals. From then on forth, the knockout round will begin on August 9th. If India is knocked out earlier, they will play in classification round games to determine their final spot.

The tournament's finale is scheduled for August 11th.

Flemming has made several changes to the squad that was representing India in Wuhan, leaving out big name players like TJ Sahi, Trideep Rai, Jagdeep Singh Bains, and Prakash Mishra and encouraged a generation of younger players to merge into the senior squad. Representing India will be their excellent captain Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, talented youthful big men Amrit Pal Singh and Amjyot Singh, energy-boost Yadwinder Singh, experienced point guard Sambhaji Kadam, and a supporting cast that includes Joginder Singh, Narender Kumar Grewal, Vinay Kaushik, Arjun Singh, Pratham Singh and Rikin Pethani. The man in the middle - or should we say the boy in the middle - will be India's 17-year-old, 7-foot-2 phenom who will garner the most attention and interest at the tournament, Satnam Singh Bhamara. By now, Satnam's story of rapid improvement at the IMG Academy in Florida are well know. The youngster, who played a bit role in Wuhan two years ago, will be hoping to breakout against Asia's best over the next two crucial weeks. Long-plagued for not having the size to compete against stronger frontlines in the past, the likes of Satnam, Amjyot, Amrit Pal, and Pethani will now make India one of the tallest sides in the competitions.

If I had to guess, India's starting lineup would be with Joginder at the point, Vishesh and Narender on the wings, and Yadwinder and Satnam in the post. Kadam will provide maturity on the point off the bench and Amjyot and Amrit Pal will come boost the front line whenever required. Coach Flemming seems to be flexible with his tactics and will probably adjust according to the competition.

Only 15 teams will be participating in Manila after Lebanon were suspended by FIBA in August: hosts Philippines, holders China, reigning silver medalists Jordan, reigning bronze medalists Korea, Chinese Taipei, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Japan, Qatar, Iran, Malaysia, Bahrain, India, Kazakhstan, and Thailand. Despite going through a downward spiral recently, China - record 15-time winners of the tournament - are still the team to beat in Asia and have been bolstered with the good news that Yi Jianlian will be participating in the tournament, too. Iran, Jordan, Korea, and Japan also feature some great players and will be amongst the teams to watch at the tournament. Boosted by a fervent, basketball-crazy home support, the Philippines could spring some surprises, too.

Our eyes though will be firmly on Team India and their hopes of a respectable finish at the tournament. Check out India's full schedule and roster here to be prepared for the road ahead. And follow the rebooted squad as they hope to bury the ghosts of Wuhan and turn some heads over in Manila.

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