Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Looking at the 2011 FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup

Looking at the 2011 FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup
by rick olivares

When the current lineup of Smart Gilas Pilipinas embarked on its current journey, it was at the FIBA Asia Champions Challenge Cup where they first made a name for themselves.

They were boys when they donned the national colors in Jakarta. During that time despite finishing fifth in the tournament, it was there where they unveiled what is now their trademark uptempo razzle dazzle game.

Three years later, that game is still on display albeit only half of the dozen players suiting up in the current edition of the Champions Cup are veterans from Jakarta. They too are parading a different reinforcement for the third straight year. And now they are men, older and wiser veterans who are contenders for the crown.

There are two truisms when it comes to international basketball – you must have several shooters to strafe from the outside (John Thompson’s folly circa 1988) and the game, for all the high-flyers who have stolen the show, still is a big man’s game.

There’s Mahram Iran with shooters like Mahdi Kamrani, Hamed Afagh, and Sammad Nikkah Bahrami and the imposing 7’1” Cheikh Samb, a former NBA player who only recently has begun to try the international circuit and tends the net as if he were playing volleyball.

Iran’s longtime West Asian nemesis Al Riyadi Lebanon has Omar El Turk to bomb from the outside and the 7’2” former University of Arizona Wildcat Loren Woods to patrol the lane.

ASU-Jordan has Sam Daghles, the San Diego, California point guard to go with the Rampage-look-alike Jameel Watkins who is a Philippine Basketball Association veteran to play center.

There’s Qatar with it a platoon of athletic big men who could shoot from the outside in Targuy Ngombo,  Ali Ali, Yasseen Musa, Mame Ndour, and Omar Salem to rotate.

The inability to hit that outside shot and its debilitating result is best seen with Duhok Iraq. When the Iraqis lost to Jordan in the opening match of the tournament, an exasperated CJ Giles said out loud, “C’mon! We keep missing from the outside. The least you could do is make your free throws.”

The Iraq Basketball Cup champions shot a measly 5-18 from three-point range and canned only 9-20 free throws.

With Smart Gilas mentored by a Serbian you know that he places a premium on outside artillery. Rajko Toroman has gunners in Jayvee Casio, Chris Tiu, and Dondon Hontiveros to light it up from the outside. If you have been watching the team for some time, it’s from the corners where the team doesn’t take too many shots. That used to be a staple play run to devastating effect with Dylan Ababou firing away from the pocket.

And should the shooters be off, Toroman has a trio of centers in the 6’9” Asi Taulava and the pair of 6’11” redwoods in Japeth Aguilar and Marcus Douthit.

While several teams have quicksilver players such as Iran’s Chris Williams (out of the University of Virginia, former NBA great Ralph Sampson’s alma mater) and Qatar’s Chauncey Leslie (from the University of Iowa), the Philippine team loves to step on the accelerator for those transition points. When they go running, gunning and skying in for a slam, they’re hard to stop.

When Taulava crashed into the A-board to save a possession (that helped turn the game into Gilas’ favor) against the KL Dragons, that was classic Gilas. They’re a team that leads in the unofficial stat of floor burns and court spills.

And that’s perfect for Mark Barroca who loves the Champions Cup. He was arguably the breakout star of the tournament three years ago and in the first two games of Gilas in this tournament, he is zigging, zagging, and embarrassing his guards. Ditto too with under-sized forward Mac Baracael who in my opinion should be the number one pick for this year’s PBA Draft.

As deep and talented as some teams are in the competition, the scheduling somewhat favors Smart Gilas. Most of the West Asian countries as just coming off their exhausting league competition and while reloading for the Champions Cup, have signed players who have not played with one another. Iraq and Malaysia are just two of those teams. “We’re battling jetlag and chemistry problems,” said Samaki Walker who is playing with Al Jalaa Syria.

“Tell me about it,” added Giles who rolled his eyes after their opening day loss to Al Riyadi. “I’m not getting the ball where I can use it.”

Obviously, not having a system to run has rendered Giles ineffective. He has only 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks in spite of playing the full 40 minutes. He rebounded in Iraq’s second match against Al Ittihad Saudi Arabia with 16 points, 14 boards and 1 block. He only got help from Earl Gray and Qutaiba Al-Doori who put up 22 and 10 points respectively.

Gilas are coming of a sterling run in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup that ended in the semifinals at the hands of Barangay Ginebra.

If ever, the composition of the team is just as important in competing in the Champions Cup. Depth is of great importance as well and teams that rely on their starting unit are asking for trouble. The Al Shabab Al Arabi-United Arab Emirates rely a lot of Rashed Al Zaabi and former Iona Gael Courtney Fields who despite being undersized is a very good and hardworking forward. In their two loses – to Al Riyadi and Mahram to open their Group A play in FIBA, they lost steam and obviously did not have the bench to compete.

Even this early, several teams are a cut above the rest. There are perennial favorites Mahram, Al Riyadi, ASU, Al Rayyan, and of course, Smart Gilas.

Whoa, Nelly. Those Middle Eastern guys can sure play basketball.

Remember the time when you talked about sports in the Middle East and that was pretty much all football? But now they have become regional basketball powerhouses.

Iran won the 2007 and 2009 FIBA Asia Championship – against China no less -- and they now have their first NBA player in Hammed Haddadi. They have Sammad Nikkah Bahrami who was also the first Iranian to play professional basketball in France with Cholet and Pau-Orthez.

There’s Lebanon’s Fadi El Khatib who was endorsed by none other than Michael Jordan who said that “Lebanon’s best player should be in the NBA.”

If El Khatib and Sam Daghles were just coming out of college now, I’m pretty sure that they’d be given a chance to play in the NBA. Nevertheless, it was nice to see Fadi get a warm welcome from the Filipino hoop fans at Philsports.

Their game has grown by leaps and bounds and this can only augur well for the sport. Now if FIBA will only allocate more seats to Asian teams to the Olympics…

The imports that I like include:
Mahram’s Cheikh Samb and Chris Williams
Watersports Kuala Lumpur Dragons’ Chris Ayer
Al Rayyan Qatar’s Chauncey Leslie
Al Shabab’s Courtney Fields

These guys can play in the PBA (if their height ceiling is allowed that is).

With Jordan's Sam Daghles.

With Al Jalaa's Samaki Walker.

With old bud CJ Giles who plays for Duhok.

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