Asia Cup Group C preview: Will hosts Lebanon rise above Kazakhstan, Korea and New Zealand?
BEIRUT (FIBA Asia Cup 2017) – With the FIBA Asia Cup 2017 only two days away, the time time is right to gauge the competition in Group C, which features New Zealand, Korea, Kazakhstan and hosts Lebanon.
Players to Watch: Shea Ili is one of only three holdovers from New Zealand’s OQT squad last year, but he will most certainly have the biggest impact. The 1.84m guard played as a back-up to the Webster brothers in 2016, but he will be the Tall Blacks’ main facilitator this time around. His chief running-mate at the perimeter will probably be shooter Ethan Rusbatch, who was one of the last cuts for the OQT squad. Rusbatch is known as a very streaky three-point artist who recently led the Kiwis with 16 points in a tune-up loss to African powerhouse Angola.
Outlook: Though they won’t have many of their A-team weapons in Beirut, New Zealand should remain a favorite to finish on the podium in their first Asia Cup campaign. James Hunter, Tohi Smith-Milner and Samuel Timmins give them great ceiling, while the duo of Ili and Rusbatch should be solid from outside. Aside from them, heavy contributions are expected from versatile forward Reuben Te Rangi and the two other OQT holdove – Derone Raukawa and Jordan Ngatai. The Tall Blacks will contend for the top spot in this group and should make at least Top 4 overall.
Players to Watch: Nikolay Bazhkin is a rising star for the Kazakhs. He was solid for them in the Asia Challenge last year, putting up around 11 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals per game. He will need to do more of that here for the Snow Leopards to have a decent chance o advancing to the next round. Another crucial player for them is veteran big man Anton Ponomarev, who is playing in his sixth top-level continental tournament. If Ponomarev is able to register solid stats for the Kazakhs, they may just spring a couple of surprises here.
Outlook: The going will get very tough for coach Eduard Skrypets and his boys in this competition. They will be underdogs in every game they will play at the group phase, and they will be playing without a couple of key guys, namely naturalized player Jerry Jamar Johnson and star wingman Anatoliy Kolesnikov. All it takes is one splendid game, though, for them to potentially topple any of the teams in this group and maybe, just maybe, sneak into the next round.
Player to Watch: The last time Oh SeKeun played at the top level tournament in Asia was way back in 2011 when Korea finished in 3rd place behind China and Jordan. This time around, the veteran big man is back to be among Korea’s go-to guys in the paint. His scoring and rebounding will be crucial for a team that was found wanting in terms of experience in 2015. They will also benefit from the presence of the KBL’s top shooting guard, Lee JungHyun. JungHyun was among Korea’s best offensive options in last year’s FIBA Asia Challenge, and he should reprise that role here for coach Hur Jae.
Outlook: Korea are no longer the feared powerhouse they once were, but that doesn’t mean they have been bumped down far enough to be called mediocre. Despite no longer having most of their iconic stars, Korea remain a threat to finish on the podium. SeKeun and JungHyun are going to be two of this team’s leaders, but coach Hur can also count on a host of other guys who’ve played at this level before, namely Kim JongKyu, Lee JongHyun, Park ChanHee and Lee SeungHyun. If the Koreans are able to maximize their trademark style of speed and shooting, they could break into the Top 8 and from there anything can happen.
Players to Watch: The last time we saw Fadi El Khatib play at Asia’s top level was almost 10 years ago in 2009, and his tour of duty here in Beirut may actually be his swan song. There is no doubt that the Lebanese Tiger would love nothing more than to return the Cedars to the podium, especially since the last time it happened was in 2007. Helping Fadi out will be the player many feel is his heir apparent, Wael Arakji. The fiery and skillful guard is only 22 years old, but he already possesses savvy beyond his years. He will not back down from anyone, and he should be among the tournament’s deadliest backcourt players by the time the dust settles.
Outlook: Having the first ever FIBA Asia Cup of its kind in Lebanon is huge for West Asia but also for the national team. The hometown support they will get is surely going to lift them to another level, and that should be more than enough for them to advance to the next round. Whether that’s enough for them to top this group, though, is another thing entirely. Aside from Fadi and Wael, Lebanon will need good production from Amir Saoud, Ali Haidar, Elie Rustom and, of course, new naturalized player Norvel Pelle, who gives Lebanon the kind of size that they missed two years ago in Changsha-Hunan. If all goes well, the Lebanese may be in for a memorable run in this tournament.