#FIBAAsia2015 Contender Preview: Kazakhstan

Amidst all the controversy surrounding Gilas Pilipinas’s neutered roster and compressed preparations, the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship in Changsha, Hunan, China will commence in about a month’s time. 

While our boys struggle to find their form and improve their chemistry, many of our regional rivals are already neck-deep in their training. China and Japan recently wrapped up their European camps, while Iran and Lebanon are on the same continent playing tune-up games. Korea just concluded a series of games opposite Taiwan, and the two are set to butt heads again in the 2015 Jones Cup, which starts in about a week. 

Without a doubt, FIBA Asia is top-of-mind for many people now, and the intensity is only bound to increase as we inch closer to the opening of the competition. With just one outright slot to the 2016 Rio Olympics up for grabs, all sixteen nations participating are sure to pull out all the stops. 

Well, except maybe for our team, which, despite the fact they will play with as much #Puso as they possibly can, will probably reel from having a thin pool of talent and the shortest training time among all teams involved.

Still, in spite of these bumps on the road, the games will go on, and so must we. 

In this series of posts, I will look at each of the ten countries identified as contenders for the 2015 FIBA Asia title. 

Starting with… the lone representative from Central Asia, Kazakhstan.





KAZAKHSTAN - THE SNOW LEOPARDS

Current national pool:
Anton Ponomarev - 6’11 - 27 years old
Vitaliy Lapchenko - 6’10 - 23 years old
Maxim Smirnov - 6’9 - 28 years old
Alexandr Zhigulin - 6’9 - 21 years old
Dmitriy Gavrilov - 6’8 - 29 years old
Dmitriy Klimov - 6’8 - 27 years old
Anantoliy Kolesnikov - 6’7 - 27 years old
Maxim Marchuk - 6’6 - 21 years old
Rustam Murzagaliev - 6’5 - 23 years old
Pavel Ilin - 6’5 - 23 years old
Rustam Yargaliev - 6’5 - 29 years old
Vasili Savchenko - 6’3 - 28 years old
Jerry Johnson - 6’0 - 33 years old
Timur Sultanov - 5’11 - 34 years old


Last major tournament: 
- Kazakhstan’s last major Asian tournament was the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. The Snow Leopards, back then, just discarded Italian coach Mario Boniciolli in favor of hometown hero Vitaliy Strebkov, and they weren’t able to play Jerry Johnson, who was deemed ineligible because of insufficient residency. Kazakhstan had to go through the qualifying phase of the Asian Games, playing three games in three days with wins over Saudi Arabia and Palestine and a lone loss to India. They advanced to the preliminary round grouped with powerhouse teams China and Taiwan, where they lost to the former and defeated the latter. They then moved on to the quarterfinals, where they beat Qatar but lost to Korea and the Philippines, both of which were fresh from the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Because of a superior quotient, however, Kazakhstan advanced to the semifinals, where they lost to defending FIBA Asia champion Iran and eventual Asian Games bronze medalist Japan. That was Kazakhstan’s best finish in the quadrennial games since placing third in the 2002 Busan Asiad.


Anatoliy Kolesnikov led Kazakhstan to a top 4 finish last year.
(image from Slam.kz)

Anton Ponomarev tries to split the Iranian defense in their semifinal game.
(image from Slam.kz)

Current preparations:
- Division 1 of the Kazakhstan pro league ended in April, while top club team BC Astana’s campaign ended in May after they got eliminated in the VTB United League quarterfinals by Russian club CSKA Moscow. Coach Strebkov didn’t waste much time calling up his wards for the national pool, pulling in the members of 2014 Asian Games squad sprinkled with other top players from the Kazakh league and, of course, Johnson. Up-and-coming big man Alexandr Zhigulin, who used to ply his trade in the ACB Liga Endesa, also returned to the national side after skipping the Asiad. The pool was finalized mid-June, and training camp started in earnest soon after. Based on my research, two names have already been cut from the pool — Azim Yagodkin of BC Caspiy Aktau and Vsevolod Fadeikin of BC Almaty Legion. The Snow Leopards recently had a two-games tune-up series with the Xinjiang Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), winning both games, 104-94 and 90-76. 


Dmitriy Gavrilov helped the Kazakhs win both their tune-up games against the Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
(image from Slam.kz)

Players to watch:
- Aside from obvious guys to watch (e.g. Jerry Johnson, Anton Ponomarev, and Dmitriy Gavrilov), two players that should be on everyone’s collective radar are the two guys who broke out in a big way in the Asian Games — 6’7 half-Australian Anatoliy Kolesnikov and 6’5 super sniper Pavel Ilin. Kolesnikov turned a lot of heads last year with his efficient play and his being able to score from literally anywhere on the floor. Ilin, meanwhile, is this team’s deadliest three-point artist, hitting 1.6 triples per contest in the Asian Games. For the record, he nailed three treys against Gilas and followed it up with 4 three-bombs against Iran. Of course, Johnson will be one of the main weapons of this team, too. The naturalized point guard is healthier now than he was in Manila two years ago, and he should play even better this time around. Ponomarev and Gavrilov will probably form this team’s best frontline, and both are capable of scoring from in close and from the perimeter.


Pavel Ilin is one guy to watch out for in #FIBAAsia2015.
(image from Slam.kz)



Outlook:
- If Kazakhstan ended up in either Group A or B, they would’ve been a shoo-in for the quarterfinals, but by being in Group D, there’s a very real chance that, despite their depth, they may not even make the second round. Group D, of course, is the tournament’s “Group of Death” as it has three other title contenders aside from the Kazakhs — Lebanon, Taiwan, and Qatar. Since only three teams will advance, one contender will immediately fall by the wayside after the opening round. If coach Strebkov can milk this roster for all it’s worth, they may just outlast the other three teams, advance to the next phase, and have a fair chance of making the knockout quarterfinals. Otherwise, they may just get booted out earlier than hoped.

Can Jerry Johnson lift the Kazakhs back into the quarterfinals of the FIBA Asia Championship?
(image from FIBA Asia)

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