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Road to China 2019: Are Iran poised to clinch their World Cup berth?
TEHRAN (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers) - Iran already have one step in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 door, but getting at least one more win should formally seal their qualification.
In this fourth of a five-part series, the focus will be on Team Melli, which will play two home games next week to cap off their Asian Qualifiers.
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Right now, Iran are at solo second spot in Group F with 7 wins against 3 losses. Australia, the group's top team, have already booked their tickets to China, and Iran are aiming to follow suit.
To do so, Team Melli need to win at least one of their next games at home. They first face Japan before ending their Asian Qualifiers against the Australians. If Iran win at least one game, they'll finish with 8 wins and 4 losses, which will be good enough to get them through to the World Cup.
If Iran lose both of their sixth window games, however, it could potentially place them in a three-way tie with Japan and the Philippines if all of them finish at 7 wins and 5 losses. In that unlikely scenario, there's still a slight chance Iran will slip out of the World Cup race.
Coach Mehran Shahintab's boys have a strong chance to win, though, given how Japan will be without big star Rui Hachimura and the fact that the Iranians will be playing at home.
Iran at the FIBAWC
Iran qualified to the last two FIBA Basketball World Cups - 2010 in Turkey and 2014 in Spain.
They have an overall World Cup record of 2 wins against 8 losses. Their first ever World Cup win was in 2010 when they beat Tunisia, 71-58. Their second win was in 2014 as they dispatched of Egypt, 88-73. They also very nearly upset France in 2014, 81-76.
Bannering Iran in 2014 were the dynamic duo of Hamed Haddadi and Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, both of whom are set to make a comeback to the national team in the final Asian Qualifiers window. Aside from them, other players from 2014 who are still on the current national pool are Rouzbeh Arghavan, Sajjad Mashayekhi, Behnam Yakhchali and Mohammad Jamshidi.
Head coach Mehran Shahintab and newcomer Mike Rostampour
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Coach Mehran doesn't want to leave anything to chance for the final window, especially with their World Cup berths at stake. He knows his players are motivated, but he also wants to keep pushing them and ensure their passage to the biggest event in international hoops.
"Our players have made a decision to play hard and play with heart," he said. "I think the players are motivated, and I expect they will do their jobs very well. We'll give some more responsibilities to some players, especially the bigs because we will play Japan and Australia."
One guy whom coach Mehran hopes will be able to step up is newcomer Mike Rostampour. The 6ft 8in (2.03m) forward was born in the United States but has finally heeded the call of Team Melli. He last saw action for Slovakian club BC Prievidza and could see some significant minutes in the final window.
"I feel extremely proud to be an Iranian-American," he said. "Iran is a great country and the people are very proud. Win or lose, Iranian fans always show more love and support to their teams than any other country in the world."
Expert Opinion (Jeff Taylor)
Iran have impressed during much of their Asia Qualifiers campaign, yet there have also been games when they did not cover themselves in glory. Remember the 74-66 loss at Iraq on November 24, 2017? Yikes! Where did that come from. There was that 77-75 escape act at Qatar on June 29. Qatar could have taken the lead with 17 seconds left but missed a free-throw and then Arsalan Kazemi's put-back dunk at the buzzer saved the day. Even in the last window, Iran had a chance to avenge their FIBA Asia Cup 2017 beatdown at the hands of Australia yet the game, as the 43-24 scoreline suggested at the break, was over at half-time.
When it's all said and done, though, we'll seem at the 32-team World Cup in China. And I much prefer to remember the positives, like the 78-70 triumph at the Philippines in the last window.
It's not inconceivable that Iran will lose twice in the next window. I expect Australia to prevail in Tehran on February 24 so it's the game before then, on February 21 at home to Japan, that everyone should be watching. Japan go into this window riding a six-game winning streak, one that started with a home triumph over Australia on June 29 and also included a 70-56 triumph over the Iranians on 70-56. Japan will be missing Yuta Watanabee and Rui Hachimura, a pair that combined 43 of their team's points that day, as well as 11 rebounds and 5 steals. However, the Japanese will have Nick Fazekas, their formidable center and the player that has made the biggest difference for the team in their winning run.
For them to finish fourth, they must lose to Australia and then fall to Japan by at least 8 points, and the Philippines would have to beat Qatar and Kazakhstan, while Qatar would have to beat Japan (I don't see that happening). Even then, Iran could qualify as the best fourth-placed team. So yes, Iran I expect will have done just enough to make it to China.