There’s a new Asian power and it’s not even Asian

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Jude P. Roque

The moment FIBA announced the merger of the Asian and Oceania regions, we knew it would be an uphill climb not only for Gilas Pilipinas but also for perennial Asian powers like Iran, China and Korea to win the gold in the FIBA Asia Cup. The merger now placed the top two teams from Oceania in the Asian Championship, and it’s been Australia and New Zealand ruling the zone for the longest time. And so, in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut, Lebanon that concluded yesterday, two of the top basketball nations in the world saw action, and as expected, made it to the medal round. The Oceania region has been dominated by Australia, which won 19 out of the 22 tournaments. New Zealand prevailed thrice, and settled for second 19 times.

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For the record, Australia is the highest ranked team in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup at No. 10 according to the FIBA world ranking. New Zealand is ranked 20th. The highest Asian country in the latest ranking is China at 14th, followed by Iran at 25th, the Philippines at 27th, Jordan at 28th, and Korea at 30th. The Australians actually finished fourth in the 2016 Rio Olympics to prove that they’re a legit world power in basketball. They also finished fourth in the Olympics of 2000, 1996, and 1988. In the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, the Boomers, even without their numerous National Basketball Association (NBA) campaigners, blasted 2015 Asian champion China to smithereens in their quarterfinal match-up, 97-71. Imagine if Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Aron Baynes, Joe Ingles and Thon Maker were also in Beirut. Australia appeared in fourteen Olympic competitions and eleven World Cups.

Mitch Creek, who plays for the Adelaide 36ers in the Australian pro league National Basketball League (NBL), leads the team in scoring with 15.8 points per game (PPG), followed by Daniel Kickert and Mitchell McCarron with 11.8 and 11.3 PPG respectively.6’11” center Matthew Hodgson is the team’s best rebounder, averaging seven boards, while Brad Newly has the most assists with 5.8 per game. In the updated FIBA Asia Cup stats, Australia tops all teams in scoring with 92.5 PPG, followed by Korea (91.4), Iran (87.8) and the Philippines (86.6). They’re second-best in total field goal percentage at 51.9%, behind Korea’s 53.8%. It’s also second in rebounding with 43 rebounds per game (RPG), next to Iran’s 46 RPG, and third in assists with 23 per game after Korea (27.8) and Iran (24.3). Surprisingly, even with an average height of 6’7”, the Boomers ranked 14th out of 16 teams in most blocks.

For their part, the Tall Blacks of New Zealand, even sans seven-foot center Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA squad, made mince meat of Jordan, 98-70, in the quarterfinals to earn the right to face Oceania nemesis Australia in the semis. Shea Ili of the New Zealand Breakers NBL squad is the team’s best scorer in the tourney with 15.8 PPG, followed by Finn Delany (13 PPG) and Tohiraukura Smith-Milner (11.5 PPG). Ili also has the most assists with 6.3 per game, while Delany is the team’s best rebounder with eight per game. As a team, the Tall Blacks are sixth in scoring with 82.3 PPG, on 45.1% shooting from the field, and 29.7% from behind the three-point arc. They’re a young team with an average age of only 23 years old. Their average height is 6’5”. New Zealand has competed in the Olympics twice and five times in the FIBA World Cup. They finished fourth in the 2002 World Championship under then head coach Tab Baldwin.

As of this writing, their semis duel between the Boomers and Tall Blacks was still about an hour away. In the other semis contest, undefeated Iran clashes with Korea, which clobbered Gilas in the quarterfinals by 32 points.

I don’t know if Australia went on to take the gold in the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup as what many anticipated. But the entry of the Aussies and Kiwis in the Asian championship certainly brings up the competition to a much higher level. Now, the Asians will have to level up their game to get a crack at the gold.

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