30 Aug 2019

Tall Blacks face daunting Basketball World Cup in China

From Checkpoint, 6:23 pm on 30 August 2019

The Tall Blacks embark on mission near-impossible this weekend with the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China.

Five years on from the last world cup, the tournament has a whole new format with 32 teams, split across eight groups, vying for title compared to 24 in 2014.

New Zealand beat Italy in a world cup warm up series, but lost to France, Serbia and Canada - all ranked higher than the Tall Blacks.

The Tall Blacks will also face stiff competition in their World Cup pool, they'll play 12th ranked Brazil, 28th ranked Montenegro and Greece - ranked eighth.

Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare knows his side, ranked 38th in the world, is up against it.

"But there have been many, many high level teams, quality teams that have gone into tournaments with high expectations and have fallen well short so for us we've got to keep it pretty short sighted.

"We're just going to focus on each game that we have, try and do the best that we can in each of those games and focus on the opposition that's in front of us and whatever happens in the tournament will happen."

While optimistic, Henare remains realistic about his side's chances and is banking on solid preparation to get his side to the knockout stages.

Tall Blacks power forward Finn Delany, playing in his first world cup, is embracing the underdog tag and is confident the side can cause a few upsets.

"I think everyone in our team, players and coaches, have the belief that we can go in and do something like that, of course, we wouldn't be here if we didn't believe that.

"It wouldn't be fair to the people that sacrificed for us to be here if we didn't we didn't believe that and I think we do wholeheartedly. It's just exciting and a really cool opportunity for us to go in there and chase that," Delany said.

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The Tall Blacks Basketball World Cup schedule. Photo: Photosport / Suneil Narsai

For the Tall Blacks to have any chance of going deep into the tournament, the whole team will need to step up, particularly their leaders.

With captains Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi ruled out with injury, the likes of Corey Webster, Tom Abercrombie and Alex Pledger will be called on to lead from the front.

Webster, playing in his second World Cup, skipped the recent New Zealand Basketball League season to prepare himself for the tournament. He said it was the best decision he could have made.

"I took that time to really rest and heal any little niggles that I have and that was successful so I'm feeling great mentally and physically right now and ready to go.

"I've got the itch to play basketball again, after playing for six or seven years without a break... it's a struggle kind of grinding it out everyday, but I've got that hunger back and fire so I'm ready to go," Webster said.

That itch is just what coach Henare is looking for from his team.

Breakers coach Paul Henare.

Tall Blacks coach Paul Henare. Photo: Photosport

Though Henare wouldn't admit he's looking any further beyond their first match against Brazil, a certain member of the Greek team has crept into the minds of his players.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, known as the Greek Freak, is the reigning NBA MVP, and will be the biggest name at this year's tournament.

Standing at 6'11" and 110kg, Antetokounmpo is a human highlight reel and Tall Blacks swingman Tom Abercrombie admits facing the Greek Freak is an exciting prospect.

"I've thought about guarding him, how to guard him and I'm excited by the opportunity.

"One thing our coaches have always done is that they're extremely well prepared and I know that we will throw some things at him that he might not have seen before and take him out of his game, but obviously that's easier said than done - he is the NBA MVP and it's going to be a great challenge for us," Abercrombie said.

The Tall Blacks hope they won't have to rely on beating Greece to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament given the threat they posess with Antetokounmpo at the helm.

If the team manages to pull off at least two wins in a group stage they're the lowest ranked side in then they'll likely qualify for the knockout stage, otherwise they'll playoff in the grading matches that go towards qualification for next year's Olympics.

Their first match is against Brazil on Sunday night.