September 13, 2011

2011 FIBA Asia Championship primer

The last among the intercontinental championship that doubles as an Olympic qualifier, the FIBA Asia Championship will be the most open in decades... that is, if you ignore the top two teams. Unfortunately, only one team goes to the Olympics outright, but fortunately, the top two teams had either suffered defeats in the tuneup tournaments, or suffered injuries.

This leaves a window of hope for the pretenders, Smart Gilas, or now aptly called Team Pilipinas.

While the recently-introduced format (started in 2009) actually allows you to lose some tough games at the start, the knockout stage will be cutthroat: one loss and you're out. And, as a quirk few people seem to notice, you don't just scout, or perhaps even follow with avid attention, the games within your own group, but the other group as well. The top three teams from Groups A and B shall form Group E, while Groups C and D's top 3 shall form Group F. If you're a discerning Smart Gilas, er Team Pilipinas fan, you do not only follow Group D, but Group C as well.

And that's what we're gonna do.

While China had an option on choosing which group to join after three members per groups were drawn, there was still a possibility of China and Iran facing in the Second Round: fortunately for them, Iran was drawn into Group B. Imagine how impossible will be the odds for Team Pilipinas if Iran landed on Group C.

With Iran and China drawn separately, the only time they'd meet will be at the final, assuming they emerged at the top of their 2nd round groups and they defeated all of their opponents.

What does this mean for Team Pilipinas? Whatever happens, they'd go through at least one team: in this case China, and if they advance to the knockout stage, they'd face Iran, assuming they'd also go that far.

The last time the Philippines and China met at the Asian Championships, China got their B-team and were beaten by the Chot Reyes-led Powerade Team Pilipinas twice: first in the hotly-contested prelim round game, and the last in the playoff for 9th place. This shows that if one of China's main gunners is missing, any team not named Iran has a decent chance of beating them.

Interestingly, Team Pilipinas and China play on the second day. Coach Rajko Toroman had earlier warned that the team might start cold in the tournament, as the TNT boys still have to learn the system. Unfortunately, they better learn fast, and enter the game with the mentality that China can be beaten. Beating China that early can waylaid them at the Iran side of the knockout stage bracket.

It's probably safe to say that both teams can beat, perhaps even easily, UAE and Bahrain, so we'd go to the potential 2nd round teams: the top three from among Japan, Indonesia, Syria and Jordan. Again, it's safe to say that Indonesia will be the team that'll drop out of that group, so we're left with Japan, Syria and Jordan.

The Philippines had been able to beat the Japanese teams in the post-BAP championships, even though they may had ranked higher at the end of the tournament. Nevertheless, this Japanese team made it to the final of the 2010 FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup beating Jordan (that'll be a nice rematch) and Qatar before being blown out by the Lebanese. In the last Jones Cup, the Gilas boys beat the Japanese. It is uncertain if the Japanese will return with their Jones Cup team intact or inject some new players, but the Philippines have been able to beat the Japanese in the games that matter lately -- see for example, in the 2009 championship. However, they had presented matchup problems to the Gilas boys, and even if the TNT boys had become accustomed to Toroman's system, if the Japanese send in new players, it may not be enough.

As for the Syrians, if Michael Madanly is back inject more carnage, the Philippines may find themselves in a thick of the fight to beat Syria. In the last Asian Championship the two teams faced, Chot Reyes coached the Tokushima team to victory in overtime.

Arguably, the toughest team to beat by the Pinoys will be the Jordanians. The Chinese may not be at full strength, but the Jordanians will be one of the top contenders this year. The demons of 2007 will be tested if both teams meet.

There are two scenarios going into the knockout stage. Unlike in 2009 where the Kuwaitis were the only "inferior" opposition (and the Yeng Guiao-coached team had a tough time against them, heck even Toroman coached Gilas to scary win against the Kuwaitis in last year's Asian Games), the 2011 2nd round is shaping up to be a tough cookie to crack, where there are no pushover teams.

Therefore it is key to finish well at the end of the second round as teams such as Iran, Lebanon, Korea and Iran, and even Chinese Taipei and Qatar, lie in wait in the quarterfinals. It's critical for the team to clinch a favorable quarterfinal matchup to ensure a fighting chance of advancing to the semifinals.

As for the semis, if the team goes that far, Iran and China are the potential opponents. So, it's quite impossible for the team not to encounter these powerhouses at any stage of the competition (any team that beats these two teams in the quarterfinals is giving the remaining teams a huge favor). Toroman should pump up his wards in case of a semifinal loss as there is everything to play for to earn those third place medals: a world qualifying tournament berth.

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