#FIBAAsia2015 Contender Preview: Lebanon

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. 

In my previous posts, I looked at teams that played in the 2015 Jones Cup in Taiwan. This time, I will look at other perceived contenders, starting with the beleaguered Lebanese.







LEBANON - THE CEDARS

Current national pool:
Loren Woods - 7’2, 37 yrs old
Charles Tabet - 6’9, 27 yrs old
Ali Haidar - 6’8, 25 yrs old
Joe Aby Khers - 6’8, 23 yrs old
Bassel Bawji - 6’8, 25 yrs old
Fadi El Khatib - 6’6, 36 yrs old
Jean Abdel Nour - 6’6, 32 yrs old
Omar Ayoubi - 6’5, 24 yrs old
Wael Arakji - 6’4, 21 yrs old
Ahmad Ibrahim - 6’4, 23 yrs old
Jay Youngblood - 6’4, 31 yrs old
Nadim Souaid - 6’3, 29 yrs old
Rodrigue Akl - 6’1, 27 yrs old
Amir Saoud - 6’0, 24 yrs old


Last major tournament: 
- Unlike most Asian teams, Lebanon’s last major tournament was the 2011 FIBA Asia Championship in Wuhan, China, where they finished a disappointing sixth after losing five of their nine games. Legendary Lebanese cager Fadi El Khatib, however, didn’t play in that tournament. Instead, the Lebanese were bannered by relatively young and up-and-coming players along with nouveau naturalized player Sam Hoskin. The Cedars fired off their campaign with a tight come-from-behind win over India, a blowout loss to Korea, and then a blowout win over Malaysia. In the second round, Lebanon dropped a close one to Taiwan, got plastered by Iran, and easily trampled Uzbekistan. That set up a battle with host China in the quarterfinals, which they lost, 48-68. After a narrow win over Japan in their next game, the Cedars closed out the tourney against Iran, losing big time again, 65-87. They actually played the following year in the FIBA Asia Cup in Tokyo, but the Lebanese fared even worse, placing seventh overall. 


Current preparations:
- Given their most recent results, Lebanon certainly wants to reestablish its place among the top teams in Asia. Things, however, haven’t gone according to plan. For one, Lebanon has been generally restricted (principally because the team has been financially strapped) to train only at home. They had a brief trip to Europe for some tune-up games, but other than that, there hasn’t been much exposure for the team. The Lebanese were also supposed to go to Manila for the MVP Cup, but they backed out at the eleventh hour purportedly to join another pocket tournament in China. Even that venture, though, didn’t materialize. By far the biggest blow to their cause, however, has been the news that El Khatib won’t be able to suit up for the team. Certain contractual issues with El Khatib’s pro club in China seem to have prevented him from joining the national team, though he is rumored to still be listed among the twelve players headed to Changsha. Either the Lebanese are still holding out for the possibility he suits up, or they’re planning for a last-minute switch.


Fadi El Khatib will be missed in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship.
(image from FIBA)

Players to watch:
- With El Khatib almost certainly out of the picture, the time is ripe for a new generation of stars to step in and step up. This is similar to what happened in 2011, but I’m sure Lebanese fans are hoping for better results this time around. Lebanon reportedly signed Loren Woods up to be their naturalized player for Changsha, but his age and health have eventually forced the team to replace him with Jasmon “Jay” Youngblood, who has played in Lebanon’s pro league and actually played for the Cedars in the 2015 West Asia qualifying tournament. Youngblood is a solid wingman who can play three positions and is a threat from practically anywhere on the floor. Joining him in the backcourt are wunderkind Wael Arakji and shooter Amir Saoud. Arakji is like Lebanon’s version of our own Kiefer Ravena — a phenomenal young talent who will carry Lebanon’s hopes in future competitions. He is a lefty combo guard who loves attacking the basket. Saoud, meanwhile, has become Lebanon’s deadliest outside threat. The southpaw sniper can wax hot from downtown in a snap and can string together a few triples with ease. Another guy to watch is young big man Ali Haidar, who played for Michigan Tech in Division 2 of the US NCAA and plied his trade this past season with Slovenian club Sencur Gornejska. Without no true center, Lebanon will rely heavily on Haidar’s contributions up front. 


Amir Saoud's shooting will be critical for Lebanon.
(image from JE Photography)

Wael Arakji (R) is projected to be a rising star in Lebanese hoops.
(image from Sports-961/SportsCode)

Outlook:
- In an ideal world, Lebanon should be bannered by, among others, El spo and half-Australian center Julian Khazzouh. Things, however, have been far from ideal for the beleaguered Cedars, and they will be forced to make do with the team they have currently assembled. It is still a formidable squad, but, given the strength of the other teams in their preliminary group, Lebanon may not make it out of Group D. If coach Veselin Matic’s wards manage to punch a ticket to round two, though, they will have a very tough time going deeper in the tournament. In all, there is a very real chance things will get ugly for Lebanon in #FIBAAsia2015.

Jay Youngblood will carry the scoring cudgels for Lebanon.
(image from Sports-961/SportsCode)


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