India’s long journey to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup begins


This article was first published in my ‘Hoopistani’ column on The Times of India Sports on November 19, 2017. Read the original version here.

Thirty-seven years ago, in the pleasant late-summer in
Moscow, Indian basketball made history. A series of fortuitous
circumstances—including a golden generation of Indian basketball stars and a
series of international diplomatic breakdowns—made
India an unlikely entrant
in the Men’s basketball fray of the 1980 Summer
Olympics. India were the weakest team in the tournament and lost all seven of
their games. Still, it was the competitive high-point in Indian hoops, an
achievement that has never been matched again.
Indian basketball has since dipped out of contention of
major world tournaments, and India has generally been one of the weaker teams
in the Asian level, too. But now, the International Basketball Federation
(FIBA) has introduced a new
competition system
that could help India gain international experience and
have a chance to participate against world superpowers at the highest-level.
In a few days, India will begin their First Round games of
the 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers. India has never played in the World Cup
(formerly known as the FIBA World Championship), which FIBA is now angling as a
competition with equal prestige as the Olympics. The road ahead to be amongst
the 32 best teams to play at the tournament in China in August/September 2019
will be difficult for the Indian Men (currently ranked 64). But India has been
able to unearth a number of exciting young players in recent years with better
scouting and development. For the current “golden generation”, the road to play
in a prestigious world tournament begins now.
India have been drawn in Group C for the First Round of the
World Cup’s Asian Qualifiers, along with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. India will
play each team in home and away between November 2017 to July 2018. To qualify
for the Second Round, India have to finish amongst the top three of their
group. The Second Round will be held between September 2018 to February 2019,
where India will have to finish top three from their group of six.
India’s first two qualifying games are on the road against
Lebanon on November 23 and then, back home in Bengaluru, for a historic first
qualifying home game against Syria on November 26. The next international
breaks of qualifiers for India will be held in late February and June/July
2018.
After helping India’s women’s senior and under-16 squads put
up respectable performances at FIBA Asia events earlier this year, Serbian head
coach Zoran Visic has been named head coach of India’s men’s squad for the
first string of qualifying games, too. Visic is a FIBA World Instructor and has
over 34 years of professional basketball coaching experience across Serbia,
Romania, Russia, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, and Singapore. He will be assisted
in coaching the team with former international player Sambhaji Kadam.
The final, 12-man roster of India’s squad was released by
the BFI on Saturday. India will be captained by veteran point guard Akilan Pari
and will feature one of the country’s top players Amritpal Singh, who is on
international break from his professional club in Australia’s NBL, the Sydney
Kings. Amritpal is sure to be the team’s centrepiece in the next two games.
India is loaded with talented bigs, including the country’s first-ever NBA
draft pick and former NBA G-League player Satnam Singh, former G-League draft
pick Palpreet Singh Brar, Rikin Pethani, Jagdeep Singh Bains, Aravind
Annadurai, and more. 
However, the team will be without the services of two of
their top three players: Amjyot Singh, who is playing for the OKC Blue of the
NBA G-League; and Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who is recovering from a right knee
injury. 
India has featured a string of talented post players in
recent years.
Unfortunately, the team will again be relying too much on the performance of
the bigs
. Amritpal, Satnam, Palpreet, and co. can all be wonderfully
dominant under the basket, but India is weak in terms of ball-handlers and
creative wing players. There will be a lot of pressure for Pari to outplay
opposing point guards, and the qualifiers will also be a good litmus test for
his young back, Prudhvi Reddy. Without Bhriguvanshi, however, India will again
struggle for consistency in setting up their offense as they did when he was hurt
at the FIBA Asia Cup. Without Amjyot, they will also need more offense from
sharp-shooter Prasanna Venkatesh from the wing. 
Lebanon, who made it to the Quarter-Finals of the FIBA Asia
Cup, will be a handful for India, especially on their home court. It is
unlikely that a weakened Indian squad will be able to earn a victory in Beirut
in their first game, but they should be prepared for the second matchup against
Syria later in the week. India will be in the comfort of home, playing in front
of home fans at the Sri Kantaveera Stadium in Bengaluru, against their weakest
competitor in this group. Syria defeated India two months ago, but a more
focused performance this time around could help India get a morale-boosting
international victory.
Finishing in top three in the group is attainable for India,
and with the rise of the next generation of young stars, the team can hope for
a strong performance looking ahead into the Second Round of qualifiers, too.
Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup might be unlikely, but the matches will
surely help India gain some valuable international experience. Hopefully, it
prepares the next generation of the squad to make new history and have the
national team playing at the highest basketball level once again.

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