This feature was first published in my column for Ekalavyas on September 4, 2016. You can find the original version here.
Team India aims to take a major leap – again – at the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge
When CV Sunny, former point guard of the Indian national basketball team in the 80s and 90s, got a chance to re-join the squad as coaching staff, his latest tenure began as easily as it possibly could. Sunny’s first order of business was to help India win the South Asian Basketball Association (SABA) Qualifiers in Bengaluru against Maldives, Nepal, and Bangladesh, a task the team accomplished while barely breaking a sweat: India won all three games by an average margin of 48 points each and qualified for the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge.
But less than a few weeks after the South Asian triumph, Sunny got a reminder of heartbreak on hardwood floors. He was moved from Assistant Coach to Head Coach for India in time for the team’s first game of the William Jones Cup – an invitational basketball tournament held in Chinese Taipei – against the American college squad from the California State University. Even without the presence of their captain Amrit Pal Singh and Basil Philip (who missed the first three games of the William Jones Cup due to a visa error), India battled neck-to-neck against the Americans. They seemed headed for a surprise opening win, when, Justin Strings – the star of the night for the opponents – hit a cold-blooded, well-defended three-pointer to push the score to 62-60 with 21 seconds left in the game. India failed to score in their final possession and Sunny experienced his first international loss as coach.
The eight-game tournament churned out a series of more disappointments, particularly India’s overtime loss to hosts Taipei Blue, once again, from a winnable position. India were the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, but by the time Amrit Pal and Philip returned to the squad, they had enough momentum to defeat the hosts’ ‘B-Team’, Taipei White 77-63. Against higher ranked physical teams such as Egypt, Iran and eventual winners Mighty Sports of the Philippines, India were neck-to-neck through most of the contest, but lack of concentration in small stretches cost them a victory. They showed potential throughout the tournament but finished 1-7.
A few weeks later, when I asked the coach about the final results, his disposition remained as sunny as his name. In the past, leading up to major Asian tournaments, India rarely got a chance to play in preparatory games to give their players exposure against top-level basketball players and develop team chemistry. This time around, the William Jones Cup seemed to arrive in the opportune time, a little over a month before the FIBA Asia Challenge, to give Sunny an encouraging sign of things to come.
“It’s very important to get exposure and the William Jones Cup was a fantastic opportunity for all of our players,” Sunny told me on Episode 35 of the Hoopdarshan podcast. “These were eight good matches against all better teams. This is going to help India in the FIBA Asia Basketball Challenge, one hundred percent.”
FIBA Asia, the continent’s governing body of basketball, have courted confusion when they introduced their ‘New Competition System’ earlier this year. The FIBA Asia Championship, the biggest Asian basketball tournament, is now renamed the ‘FIBA Asia Cup’ and scheduled to be held every four years starting in 2017. This newly-remixed Cup will also include teams from Oceania, like Australia and New Zealand.
But FIBA Asia already holds a biennial secondary Asian tournament called the FIBA Asia Cup (formerly the Stankovic Cup), and in lieu of recent changes, this tournament has since been renamed the ‘FIBA Asia Challenge’. From September 9-16, the sixth iteration of this tournament, for the first time under its new moniker, will be held in Tehran, Iran, the home of the two-time reigning champions.
Whatever the name may be, India will always have fond memories of this competition. Two years ago, when this tournament was last held in Wuhan (China), India achieved a miracle. Led by American head coach Scott Flemming and the ‘big three’ of Amjyot Singh, Amrit Pal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, they defeated Asia’s top-ranked basketball team and hosts China 65-58 in the Preliminary Round, while giving major headaches top three sides Iran and Philippines later in the tournament. The ‘Wonder of Wuhan’ was India’s biggest-ever basketball victory. Flemming left the national squad a year later, but the spark was ignited for India to dream of greater successes in the future.
In the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship (which will be the FIBA Asia Cup from 2017) back in China, Indian basketball’s spark continued to burn. India relied on the all-round brilliance of Amjyot Singh to notch several key victories and make the Quarter-Final stage. They finished at 8th place, their best seeding in the continent in a dozen years.
Amjyot and Amrit Pal’s recent performances earned them professional contracts in Japan, first in the BJ Summer League and then in Japan’s D-League. The two Punjabi big men dominated both competitions.
Back home in India, basketball has been embroiled with controversy and speedbumps. Many players have suffered over the past year, first in a tug-of-war between the Basketball Federation of India’s (BFI) two opposing executive committees and later, further drama between the BFI and the UBA Basketball League. In the middle of this toxic atmosphere, the improved performances of the Men’s national team have provided much-needed respite.
Now with the FIBA Asia Challenge looming, the team seems ready to continue their improved run of play and take another major leap forward. While most teams consider this a ‘secondary’ tournament and some hold back their top talents, India will be sending their best-available line-up – a healthy mix of youth and experience – to Tehran. Head Coach Sat Prakash Yadav along with CV Sunny will marshal the troops from the bench.
There are a number of big names who were not able to make the cut, due to a variety of reasons. At the top of the list is India’s first NBA draftee Satnam Singh, who was named in the list of probables in mid-August but won’t be making the final cut due to his commitments in the NBA’s D-League in Texas. Also following his footsteps in the USA is Palpreet Singh, the winner of the ACG-NBA Jump programme this year, who is currently preparing for the D-League tryouts.
Coach Sunny reported that two of his important players – Arvind Arumugam and Aravind Annadurai – didn’t make the training camp due to injury. And BFI’s ban on UBA league participants meant that a couple of important members of the squad that defeated China in the FIBA Asia Cup two years ago – Narender Grewal and Joginder Singh – weren’t allowed to play for the national team, either.
Although India will definitely miss the star power of Satnam and the depth in reserve provided by the other key individuals named above, their absence has opened the door for several young prodigious talents. Recent senior team debutants Arshpreet Bhullar and Ravi Bhardwaj will continue their dream run with the senior squad. Following his stellar performances at the FIBA U18 Asia Championship – also in Tehran – young shooting guard Hariram Ragupathy will return to Iran now with the senior squad and hope to show his potential at the bigger stage.
The dilemma for Sunny and the coaching staff will be the starting point guard position, which is up for grabs between Akilan Pari and Talwinderjit Singh ‘TJ’ Sahi. Pari is better at combining with his teammates and, in Sunny’s words, is a better “organiser” of the game. But TJ is the better shooter and faster at getting from coast to coast. It’s the eternal battle between the ‘pass-first’ and the ‘score-first’ point guards. “The decision will depend game by game and opponent by opponent,” said Sunny.
As it has been in recent years, however, India’s performances will eventually depend on the performances of our Big Three – Amjyot Singh, captain Amrit Pal Singh, and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi – who will have to shoulder the heaviest burden for the ‘Young Cagers’. Vishesh, a versatile off-guard, has been enjoying a return to form and remains an elite talent across the continent. Amjyot and Amrit Pal, both in their early 20s, are two of the best big men in Asia. Amrit Pal has developed into a star post-defender, while Amjyot has added variety to his offensive game to dominate from the perimeter as well as the post.
“These three are going to be the best,” Sunny predicted. “They are the key players of our team right now.”
The rest of the roster includes experienced and energetic forward Yadwinder Singh, and backups Basil Philip, Prasanna Sivakumar, and Rikin Pethani.
In the Preliminary Round of the tournament, India have been grouped with Chinese Taipei and Philippines. Both teams are ranked higher than us, but Sunny has reason to feel confident after India’s performances against the two Taipei teams and Mighty Sports at the William Jones Cup. India defeated Taipei’s “B” team and lost to the “A” team in overtime. Chinese Taipei will be without many of their experienced stars at the FIBA Asia Challenge, although India will have to watch out for the explosive talents of Quincy Davis. Meanwhile, the Philippines will be sending a team without naturalised players and won’t have too many stars from their domestic league in this national team.
The format at this tournament is a strange one. All twelve participating teams from the four preliminary round groups will qualify for the second round, regardless of their results, but carrying on their previous win/loss records. They will be placed into two new groups of six teams each in the Second Round, and the top four teams from each of these groups (a total of eight) will then qualify for the Quarter-Final/Knockout stage.
India is likely to cross paths later in the tournament with several more of the favourites, including two-time winners Iran, who will feature Asian basketball legend Hamed Haddadi, and China, who are once again sending a weaker team but will still be a handful to deal with. India will hope to finish with a better record than teams like Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Qatar, and if they can finish in the top four of the Second Round, they will be looking at another top eight finish and the Quarter-Final stage.
“With this team, anything is possible,” said Sunny. “We have a very good side. If they play their proper game, we can fight against any team. I’m not assuring you that we can beat China again or not. But we can definitely play really well. Last time [the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship] we finished 8th. Surely we can make it to the Quarter Finals this time, and if we do well, we have a chance to make it to the semi-finals, too!”
If will take a miracle of epic proportions – another Wonder of Wuhan, perhaps – for India to take such a dramatic jump in the Asian standings. But, in contradiction to all the noise and drama back home, Team India is heading to Tehran with a sense of quiet confidence. They are experienced, talented, and ready. Now, it’s time to silence their doubters and let their on-court performances speak for themselves.