The Boomers are expected to be the kings of Asia the moment they set foot into their new continental home, but will it be as simple as that?
As the Opals found out last month – just like New Zealand in multiple rugby world cups, Roger Federer for five major-less years, and countless NCAA favourites – tournament play can be tricky.
It only takes one bad day or even a few bad decisions to turn a strong tournament showing into an early exit.
At the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, had it not been for resting players in the final group game, Australia would have secured their best ever group record in World Cup history, 4-1 after a slow start against Slovenia in the tournament opener.
In their Round of 16 clash with Turkey, the Aussies looked the better team, and when Aron Baynes delivered a two-handed facial and Matty Dellavedova converted two free throws from a Turkish bench tech, the lead was out to 12 points midway through the third term.
However, five turnovers, five fouls, three missed free throws and a missed lay-up to round out the quarter allowed the Turks to sneak back within four points and set up their heart-breaking last-minute win.
Small things make a big difference in tournament play, and winning teams must make the most of every advantage they get.
Like Australia’s women’s team, the Boomers have one very obvious advantage in the FIBA Asia Cup – size.
The Boomers’ average height is 200cm, slightly bigger than an average NBL team, however their three group opponents – Japan (191cm), Hong Kong (188cm) and Chinese Taipei (193cm) – are very much mosquito fleet teams who rely on their speed.
Few Asian teams would have faced a frontline with the combination of height and strength that David Andersen, Matt Hodgson, Angus Brandt and Nick Kay bring to this Boomers line-up.
Add to that the length on the wings of Brad Newley, Todd Blanchfield and Mitch Creek, who have the height of most opponents’ power forwards and athleticism they can only dream of.
While teams with a size advantage often look to slow the game down and outmuscle opponents, expect the Boomers to defend aggressively and use their rebounding advantage to run for easy scores, or early entry into offence before opposition guards can put defensive heat on the ball.
Where the Australians perhaps have a weakness is experience, particularly in the Asian basketball environment.
With international veterans like Chris Goulding, Damian Martin, Kevin Lisch, Nate Jawai and Adam Gibson unavailable, the Boomers are taking eight players to Lebanon who have never played in a major FIBA tournament at senior level. A ninth, Cam Gliddon, played at the last FIBA Oceania Championship, but spent less than a minute on court and didn’t touch the ball.
The leadership of Andersen and Newley – with six Olympics and five World Cups between them – will obviously be very important, but so will all the extra opportunities Basketball Australia and the NBL have created for players to get a taste of international basketball.
While some sceptics scoff at development tours to China and the World University Games (WUG), the reality is those events will have played a big role if the Boomers do bring home the loot from Beirut.
Jason Cadee destroyed China last year, and was one of the absolute stars of the 2013 WUG in Russia, leading the Aussies to the silver medal, his 16-point final quarter to stun the USA etched in Australian basketball folklore.
Mitch Norton and Blanchfield were starters on that team, while Creek and McCarron played under Lemanis at the 2015 tournament.
Nine of this line-up has been a part of a CPA Australia tour (or its predecessor the Sino-Australian Challenge) to take on the Chinese national team and experience playing in adverse conditions.
Daniel Kickert in particular has shone in this environment, and 11 years after his only major FIBA appearance at the 2006 World Cup will be looking to make up for lost time.
As a result of all those events, almost the entire squad has experience in coach Lemanis’ system and have an understanding of how international basketball differs from the club variety.
Despite that, the three group opponents will be a new challenge for everyone in the Boomers set up, who have had experience against China, Korea and Jordan, but little against other Asian teams.
Japan are first up, at 11pm AEST Tuesday night, and they are a team not to be taken lightly.
The Japanese started the 2015 version of this tournament horrendously, losing to Iran by 38 points, but grew steadily by the game, and in bronze medal playoff gave the Iranians the fright of their lives before falling in the final moments.
Makoto Hiejima is the man to watch, an unorthodox shooting guard with a lightning-quick pull-up jumper, an uncanny knack for putting the ball in the hole and love of the big moment – he scored 43 points in the medal rounds two years ago.
There has been much talk about 167cm debutante point guard Yuki Togashi, who can make plays for himself and others, while his back up Ryoma Hashimoto brings the heat defensively but is a turnover waiting to happen with ball in hand.
It is inside Japan will struggle to match the Boomers. Kosuke Takeuchi brings toughness and naturalised American Ira Brown athleticism, but with Joji Takeuchi – the Pau Gasol of Asian basketball – out of the team they don’t have the depth or size of the Australians.
Hong Kong are Australia’s second opponent on Thursday night and this game will be a mismatch for the ages. In 2015, the men from Hong Kong lost to Iran by 55 points and the Philippines by 51, and they return much of the same squad this time around.
Big man Duncan Reid is an admirable workhorse, and at 203cm carries much of the interior load, his style perhaps best described as a poor man’s Dusty Rychart.
Sharp-shooters Lee Ki and Chan Siu Wing are also dangerous opponents, and will shoot at will in transition, but with Australia’s rebounding dominance and ball pressure it will be hard to see them getting enough supply to do much damage.
The Boomers round out the group stage against Chinese Taipei, who have traditionally been one of the danger teams of Asian basketball.
In 2013 they famously upset big brother rivals China en route to a semi-final appearance, sparking wild celebrations in their island state, however in 2015 a pair of disappointing close losses saw them fall outside the top eight for the first time in 10 years.
This is a very different Chinese Taipei team, however, with star big men Tseng Wen-Ting and Quincy Davis absent and mercurial shooting guard Lin Chih-Chieh retired from international basketball, leaving a huge hole in their scoring power.
The reality is the opener against Japan is the only potential stumbling block for the Boomers in the group stage.
The Next Step
A victory over the Japanese, followed by expected wins in the final two group games, will give Lemanis’ men direct passage to the quarter-finals. Should they stumble and finish in second or third, however, and a cross-group playoff will be needed to progress to the final eight.
That’s when the challenges will really come for the Boomers.
Iran and China are almost always at the pointy end of this tournament due to their sheer size and muscle compared to other Asian opponents, while the speed, athleticism and passion of the Philippines delivered them back-to-back silver medals in 2013 and 2015.
Lebanon return most of their young team that impressed in Changsha two years ago. However the question mark for the hosts is how the return of ball-hungry 38-year-old legend Fadi El-Khatib will impact their team-oriented play.
Can the New Zealand development team, led by Breakers tyro Shea Ili, shock everyone with their toughness? It would be a monumental performance from a country used to creating basketball upsets.
Time will reveal all, but for David Andersen, Brad Newley and Co, Tuesday against the dangerous Japanese is the night to get things right – the rest of the tournament will fall into place if they do.