All them trips throughout Asia and back as the Tall Blacks sought qualification for the 2019 FIBA World Cup came to their conclusion in late February with a dramatic 69-67 win away in Jordan followed by a bit of a disappointing 86-80 defeat in Jordan. No worries, it was still enough to finish top of our side of the draw with a head to head tiebreaker over South Korea. 10 wins and 2 defeats along the way. Beat every team we came up against at least once. All in all a pretty decent campaign.
Except that it didn’t massively matter how we got there, as long as we got there. Like, it literally didn’t matter. Because once it came time for the star-studded ceremonial World Cup draw a couple days ago (they had Kobe Bryant AND Yao Ming! And best-selling popular musician Jason Derulo!), the seeding pots were split based on the most recent FIBA World Rankings and despite cruising through most of qualification and despite finishing fourth at the Asian Cup before that, the Tall Blacks are lingering way back at 38 on those ranks. Which placed us in pot seven out of eight.
Bit rough? Sure. But the rankings are weighted and most Asian teams aren’t particularly well ranked to begin with, so the benefits of winning a bunch of games against Hong Kong or Chinese Taipei don’t compare to doing the same in, say, Europe or the Americas.
Having said that, we’re still ranked way behind Australia (11), Iran (27), China (30), Philippines (31), and South Korea (32). We only played two of those teams in qualifying, China and South Korea, but we went 3-1 against them. Granted we lost twice to South Korea at the Asia Cup (albeit with a weakened squad). I dunno, it’s all a bit weird. I don’t like these kinds of world ranking systems at the best of times.
The 32 qualified teams were split into eight seeding pots of four for the draw. China were an automatic top seed as hosts, as is the regular custom. USA, Spain, and France joined them. Ranked one, two, and three in the world. Pot 2 featured Serbia (4), Argentina (5), Lithuania (6), and Greece (8). And so on, so forth. Then to keep things in even more balance, the pots were split onto two sides of the draw in a serpentine fashion to have the most evenly balanced groups possible. 1/4/5/8 were on one side, 2/3/6/7 were on the other.
They also swapped Canada and Iran between Pots 5 & 6 in order to keep things spread out geographically, which is something that directly affected how New Zealand too. Rule being that we were to avoid any other Asian conference team. So we couldn’t draw Australia as the second seed in our group. Couldn’t draw Philippines or South Korea as the third seed.
With all that in mind, here’s what happened…
Cheers Kobes. Good on ya, chieftain.
So you can forget all the complicated experimental jazz of the previous few paragraphs, the end result was that we drew Greece as the top seed in our group, Brazil as the second, Montenegro as the third, and yeah we were the fourth. Little old Aotearoa as the underdog? Eh, we’ve been here before, I s’pose.
It’d be silly to say that this is a tough group because as a fourth seed it was always going to be a tough group. What’s worth saying instead is that it’s actually, relatively speaking, pretty much the best conceivable group we could have gotten.
Greece were the lowest ranked side in Pot 2. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s is not a face you particularly wanna see standing opposite you at tip off but the alternatives were Serbia, Argentina, and Lithuania. Now the Argies aren’t what they once were in the Manu Ginobili days, but they’re still stacked with supreme EuroBasket players, pretty much all based in Spain. Meanwhile Serbia (Nikola Jokić, Bogdan Bogdanović, Boban Marjanović & Miloš Teodosić) and Lithuania (Jonas Valančiūnas, Domantas Sabonis & Donatas Motiejūnas) are well stocked with NBA proven players and considering we don’t know if our only comparable bloke will be available or not… rather relieved to have dodged those two, for sure.
Greece will still be ruthless. Giannis has a couple brothers who are half decent themselves and you don’t wanna sleep on the likes of Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes either. But it’s certainly better than drawing Serbia. Likewise, getting Brazil instead of Italy or Russia is nice as well. None of that trio are much fun but Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejão are pretty old these days. Feel free to argue with me but I prefer that to Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli or Timofey Mozgov and the best that the Russia federation has to offer. Anyway, the best team in that pot was Australia and we couldn’t draw them by rule so we had a headstart there to begin with.
Then the third seed was a straight toss of the coin between Montenegro and Canada and you don’t have to even think about that one for a second. All due respect to Montenegro but this Canadian team has the potential to be the strongest the country has ever sent to a World Cup. Cory Joseph, Jamal Murray, Kelly Olynyck, Dwight Powell, Andrew Wiggins… yeah mate. Macedonia does have Nikola Vucevic though so that’s a scary one.
In fairness, we don’t actually know how many of these NBA players are going to be available for selection. We don’t even know if our own NBA player will be available. At a gut feel I’ve always thought that Steven Adams would show for World Cups and Olympics (more on that in a second), but the closer we get to this one without a single word from the fella himself the more the situation gets nervy. It’s not Steven Adams’ duty to play for the Tall Blacks and he represents the country as well as anyone with what he does in the NBA. But it’d be bloody nice if he did play because without him we don’t have a whole lot of hope.
My feeling has also always been that if we need Adams to qualify for these things then we might as well not bother because we won’t make much of a splash with or without him at the tournament itself. He should only play at the two major tournaments. This is one of them and, with a solid core of a team already in place through qualification, his presence could lift us to the next level where we’re challenging to make it into the championship knockouts. All the dumb people moaning about him, questioning his priorities… there’s no good reason why he should have played for the Tall Blacks until now. So now we wait and see what happens.
The other thing about this World Cup is that Olympic qualification is on the line. The top performing Oceania team will go straight into Tokyo 2020 and obviously that means we’ve gotta somehow go further than Australia to achieve that. Australia should be considered contenders to win the whole thing (in as much as any team other than USA can even be considered) but you know all those teams we were glad we didn’t draw? Well, Aussie got them. Canada, Senegal, Lithuania, and Australia. It’s the so-called Group of Death. Another way that this draw worked out as well as it could for us.
Fail to progress further than Australia and there will be Olympic qualifying tournaments like last time for the final four places. That’s going to be extremely tough considering some of the Euro teams that won’t make it automatically from the World Cup. I’d suggest we’re a low shot of qualifying for that one but if we do… it’s easier to finish ahead of one excellent team than a whole bunch of them. This is our best chance.
The World Cup takes place in the first half of September. We play Brazil first, then Macedonia, then Greece. Toughest game last. Hey, they’re all tough games. That’s why it’s a World Cup. That’s why we had to qualify to make it this far. But as far as tough games go it could have been a lot worse.
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