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CHINA & IRAN STILL TEAMS TO BEAT

China and Iran, the last two teams to reign supreme in the FIBA Asia Championship, still loom as the top title contenders despite the continued influx of naturalized players in the regional cage conclave.

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For the 27th edition of the Asian meet in Manila, the Chinese and the Iranians are still the benchmarks with their formidable lineups and the innate desire to keep basketball excellence in Asia.

If ever, Manila may become the venue of the much-anticipated China-Iran rematch that didn’t happen in the last FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China.

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Two years earlier in another Chinese city, Tianjin, the Iranians humbled the Chinese, 70-52, before their home crowd to complete a repeat of their title run in Tokushima, Japan in 1997.

In Wuhan in 2011, Jordan foiled the expected China-Iran grudge match as the Tab Baldwin-mentored Jordanians tripped the Iranians in the quarterfinals.

The Chinese went on to reclaim the crown while the Iranians have since recovered from their Wuhan debacle, topping the last FIBA Asia Cup in Tokyo and roaring on to rule the recently held Jones Cup in Taipei.

Both are highly motivated going to the Manila joust where they meet in an early showdown, having found each other in the same preliminary round grouping with South Korea and Malaysia.

Nonetheless, the Chinese and the Iranians – and even the Koreans – are expected to easily make the knockout stage, and they may face each other again only towards the end of the do-or-die matches.

More than ever, China could be hardest to beat this time after being shut out in the last Olympics.

Their woeful showing in the London Games prompted the Chinese basketball federation to dismiss American coach Bob Donewald and, in his place, tapped in Greek mentor Panagiotis Giannakis.

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Under Giannakis, China placed second behind Argentina in the Stankovic Continental Cup. The Chinese, led by ace center Yi Jianlian, had earlier solid showings in friendlies with Australia and Ukraine. Before going to Manila, Giannakis and his troops play Macedonia and Montenegro in a tri-nation meet.

Iran is as serious in its FIBA Asia preparation under Serbian coach Memi Becirovic.

The Iranians underscored their readiness for the Asian world qualifier when they swept their way to the championship in the 2013 Jones Cup.

A huge extra boost for Iran is the addition of Oregon U standout Arsalan Kazemi for the Manila meet slated Aug. 1-11 at the MOA Arena in Pasay and the Ninoy Aquino Stadium in Manila.

The 6-foot-8 combo forward, the 54th overall pick in the last NBA Rookie Draft, made a good impression with the Philadelphia Sixers in the NBA Summer League.

Then there are veteran Iranian stars Hamed Haddadi, Sammad Nikkhah Bahrami, Hamed Afagh and Mahdi Kamrani.

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