THE wait is nearly over. On Tuesday at the Nouhad Nawfal Gymnasium near Beirut, Lebanon, the FIBA Asia Cup will get underway with a match between Kazakhstan and New Zealand.
For the next 13 days, the elite national basketball teams of Asia (and, as of this year’s tournament, Oceania) will compete for the title won most recently by China in 2015.
The presence of Australia and New Zealand will add intrigue and further quality to the event, with the Oceanic nations among the favourites for the title.
Indeed, Australia – even without NBA stars such as Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills, Matthew Dellavedova and Joe Ingles – will start as the bookmakers’ outright favourites for glory in Lebanon. New Zealand are generally ranked as joint third-favourites.
Based on FIBA world rankings alone, Australia – with a ranking of 10th – are the best team in Lebanon, followed by: China (14th), New Zealand (20th), Iran (25th), Philippines (27th) and Jordan (28th).
If host nation Lebanon (43rd in the world) can get off to a good start, in a pool where they are the second-highest ranked team, the buzz and energy around the whole tournament could go into overdrive.
The group stage
Group A: Iran should have few problems triumphing in Group A, with India, Syria and Jordan unlikely to trouble the three-time champions who were last crowned kings of Asia in 2013.
For the first time in a decade, Iran are without Samad Nikkhah Bahrami and Mahdi Kamrani, but Hamed Haddadi remains, as do a raft of fellow veterans who can comfortably steer Iran into the knockout stage.
Jordan should have enough in their ranks to finish second, with naturalised player Kevin Ware – now fully recovered from the horrific injury that was seen around the world in 2013 – their go-to man.
Group B: Every major sporting tournament, it seems, must have a ‘group of death’, and the FIBA Asia Cup version this time is Group B, which features China, Philippines, Iraq and Qatar.
Without Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi, China’s key man is Guo Ailun, an all-star when China won the tournament last time out. It will be intriguing to see how 19-year-old Hu Jinqiu fares in his big tournament debut.
Philippines have had a chaotic build-up, with Andray Blatche’s absence, June Mar Fajardo’s injury and limited practice time hardly helping, but they do still have Jayson Castro, Japeth Aguilar and Terrence Romeo, and should edge out Qatar for second spot.
Iraq make up the group, and much responsibility for their performance in the tournament will fall on the shoulders of 29-year-old naturalised player Kevin Galloway.
Group C: This is arguably the most intriguing of the four groups. Tournament debutants New Zealand have the highest world ranking but are without a number of frontline players, although Shea Ili promises to make a major impact.
There is plenty of excitement around what the host nation Lebanon could achieve in this tournament, and they should qualify from the group with fearless 22-year-old guard Wael Arakji pivotal.
South Korea may no longer be feared, but they have enough quality in their ranks to cause teams problems for long stretches of games, while Kazakhstan – who are without naturalised player Jerry Jamar Johnson – could find the going tough.
Group D: Australia are clear favourites to win this group, even without 11 of the 12 players who reached the semi-final of the Olympics in Rio last year. The one survivor, 37-year-old David Andersen, brings an abundance of nous and experience, while guard Jason Cadee has a big chance to shine.
With the Boomers likely to win the group with much to spare, the battle between Chinese Taipei and Japan for second place will hold its own intrigue, especially as they share a world ranking of 48th.
Japan may start as favourites to edge out Chinese Taipei, who are without both Quincy Davis and Tseng Wen-Ting, which will put much of the focus on Liu Cheng. With Yuki Togashi running the show for Japan, they should have enough to qualify from the group.
Hong Kong go into the tournament with little expectation on them, but they will be looking to cause an upset, and Chinese Taipei look the most vulnerable against a side for whom 6ft 9in Duncan Reid can impress.
The knockout stage
It is difficult to look beyond Australia for the title, even with key men missing, although a potential quarter-final between the Boomers and Philippines is an intriguing prospect, as would be a semi-final showdown against New Zealand.
On the side of the draw, presuming they top their groups, Iran should advance to a semi-final with China, which would be box-office viewing in itself.
Predicted champions: Australia.
Predicted runners-up: China.
Predicted bronze medallists: New Zealand.
The opening games
Tuesday: Group C: Kazakhstan v New Zealand, Lebanon v South Korea; Group D: Japan v Australia, Hong Kong v Chinese Taipei.