With the 2015 FIBA Asia Men’s Championship just a day away, and the time is ripe to preview each of the sixteen teams who will vie for the lone outright Asian slot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Teams are divided into four groups and will play each other team in a single round-robin format in the first round. The top three teams in each group move on to round two, where they join another group’s top three for another single round-robin set of games. The top four in each second round group qualify for the single-elimination quarterfinals. The winners move on to the semifinals and then the final two teams standing battle each other for the slot in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Let’s begin with a pretty easy group to predict, Group A, where we have host team China, traditional powerhouse Japan, up-and-coming India, and lowly Malaysia.
India didn’t have a lot to smile about in the run-up to the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship. First off, erstwhile coach Scott Flemming, the man who was a big reason for India’s steady rise in the past two years, resigned and moved back to the States. Secondly, promising young big man Satnam Singh Bhamara, who was drafted to the NBA this past June, decided to forego the Asian tournament this year so he could concentrate on his professional career. For much of the team’s training, their top two players, Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh, also couldn’t join since they have been playing in Japan. Needless to say, the preparations have been far from ideal for Team India.
The time is now for Amjyot Singh to be this team’s main weapon. The 6’8 forward has an absolutely enviable skill-set. He can put the ball on the floor, attack the basket with ferocity, hit the midrange and long range jumpers, and protect the rim like crazy. He was solid for India in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup, averaging 15 points and 7 rebounds per game. He dropped 13 points as India registered a near-impossible win over mighty China. Amjyot has always been solid for the Indians, but they will need him to really shine here. With Amjyot, Amrit Pal Singh (6’10), Gurvinder Singh Gill (6’7), and young Akashdeep Hazra (7’0), India will certainly not be lacking in size. Without veteran guards like Pratham Singh, Narender Kumar, and Joginder Singh, though, the backcourt may be something of a work in progress for coach Sat Prakash. Veteran campaigner Vishesh Bhriguvanshi is also one to watch, and he will be expected to lead this squad along with their sizeable frontline.
The defending champions will remain thus until they are dethroned. So far, Iran has stamped its class even in tune-up games, winning the 2015 William Jones Cup in dominant fashion. Prior to that, Team Melli also did well in the Atlas 8-Nations Tournament in China, finishing second to the hosts. These results augur well for their chances to successfully defend the crown they won two years ago in Manila.
As the oldest player on the team, Mahdi Kamrani will be the undisputed general on the court. At 33 years old, Kamrani may be entering the twilight of his continental career, and he will surely want to go out guns blazing. In addition, he will also play with a chip on his shoulder as he wants to unseat Filipino Jayson Castro from his spot as Asia’s #1 point guard. Throughout its pre-tournament games and preparation, Iran has rarely shown any weakness. They have great size at every position, they are potent from anywhere on the floor, and they are very well-coached. On paper, this is the perfect team to win the continent’s lone outright spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Fresh from a tough period in its national federation’s history, Japan has bounced back admirably, impressing in the Atlas 8-Nations Tournament, in a couple of tune-up games against a Czech selection, and in the 2015 Jones Cup. With Kosuke Takeuchi out, the onus is on the returning Joji Takeuchi to patrol the paint. The Japanese will give up a lot of size, but Joji remains a top-tier big man in the continent. His size, mobility, and versatility should keep opposing frontcourt defenders busy while also opening things up in the perimeter for shooters like Kosuke Kanamaru, Keijuro Matsui, and Takatoshi Furukawa.
Whereas the frontline will be relatively weak, though, Japan will excel tremendously at the perimeter positions. Kanamaru leads the way here, with fellow dead shots Matsui and Furukawa raring to launch from the parking lot. Yuta Tabuse, that smallish guy who played a few games for the Phoenix Suns back in the day, will also play in the FIBA Asia Championship for, get this, the first time ever. He’s the oldest one on this squad at 34, but he still packs a punch. If coach Kenji Hasegawa’s wingmen can wax hot and Joji Takeuchi holds his own in the paint, Team Hayabusa may be a surprise some of the more fancied contenders.
Malaysia has remained quiet in terms of its preparation, but its experiences in the 2015 SEABA Tournament and 2015 SEA Games should have sharpened its sights somehow. 6’5 forward Ivan Yeo may be a little undersized for his position at the continental level, but that shouldn’t stop him form being one of the most promising members of this team. He averaged a double-double in the SEABA competition, putting up around 13 points and 15 rebounds per contest. Now that’s definitely not something to scoff at.
With only a pair of 6’7 players to back Ivan Yeo up in the paint, it’s clear that size will not be one of the Malaysians’ strengths. Those two guys — Yoong Jing Kwaan and Tian Yuan Kuek — will have to be rock-solid if they harbor any chances of being competitive against the other three teams in this group. Also, only four players are holdovers from the team that played in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, so experience is another factor not in Malaysia’s favor.
Prediction: Iran, Japan, and India advance, while Malaysia is knocked out.