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New coach and new hopes for Lebanon in 2015
MANILA (Enzo Flojo's Asia on my Mind) - When Lebanon's national men's basketball players lace up their sneakers for the 2015 West Asia Basketball Association (WABA) Championships and, eventually, the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, their eyes will be set on a singular goal - to reclaim their spot among Asia's hoops powerhouses.
After the Cedars were reinstated in the FIBA family early in May 2014, beefing up the national team with their eyes set on 2015 was one of the top priorities for the Lebanese Basketball Federation (FLB).
The dream is to top the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship in China and qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"We lost several places in FIBA [bwin World] ranking," wrote Lebanese basketball scribe Dany Abboud. "We also lost a chance to make it to the FIBA Basketball World Cup for the fourth successive time."
"It's very important to put ourselves again among the top three, with an eye, too, on the title."
With the objective of re-establishing the Cedars among Asia's elite basketball teams, the FLB made moves in 2014 to organize and further improve its already robust professional league - the LBL.
"The league has been drastically improved," said Abboud. "We have also witnessed some very high-level foreign players, some of whom moved to the NBA directly like Hassan Whiteside or to the D-league like Andre Emmett."
As with seasons past, crowd-favorite teams like Sagesse/Hekmeh BC and Sporting Al Riyadi Beirut continue to dominate the LBL, not to mention the region after the teams finished first and second at the 2015 Dubai Invitational Tournament. Meanwhile, other clubs like UBA (United Byblos Amchit) and Champville SC have shown increased strength this season to improve league parity.
In addition to a strong professional circuit, another significant building block towards the Cedars' goal was getting former Poland and Iran national team coach Veselin Matic.
Matic brings with him an impressive record, including winning the 2009 FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin, China with the Iranians. With him at the helm, Team Melli swept all nine of its games and dominated the home team in the Final, 70-52, for their second consecutive FIBA Asia title.
This won't be coach Matic's first tour in Lebanon, either, as he also coached Sagesse during the 2008-09 season. He was chosen over two other coaching candidates: Greek coach Ilias Zouros, who is in charge of Turkish club Tofas SK and held the reins of Greece's national side; and Slovenian Memi Becirovic, the former coach of the Iran national team that won several titles in the last few years.
FLB President Walid Nassar gave Matic a vote of confidence.
"Since Matic knows Lebanon and Iran, he knows the competition," he told FIBA.com.
"He knows the players by name, by positions, and the clubs."
With a view to improve on Lebanon's current 34th place in the FIBA bwin Men’s Ranking, Matic is expected to employ the talents of FIBA Asia veterans such as Jean Abdelnour, Ali Mahmoud, Rodrigue Akl and Elie Stephan.
He also has at his disposal a lot of new names that can spring a few surprises against Asia’s top contenders. With former U18 stars like Wael Arakji, Elie Chamoun, Ali Mezher and Jimmy Salem all giving good accounts of themselves in the LBL, it seems Matic has a solid foundation that he can use to chart Lebanon's ambitious new direction.
"After taking into consideration that we have an impressive mix of veteran and young players, we are in a good situation to succeed," said Abboud.
Another name that gives Lebanese basketball fans renewed hope is 2.09m Lebanese-Australian big man Julian Khazzouh. He has been playing really well of late in the LBL, averaging 15.2 pints, 9.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game for Sagesse, while shooting 52.1 percent from the field, including 45.8 percent from beyond the arc. If he does decide to don the Cedars' colors this year, he will surely improve Lebanon's chances at finishing at or near the top.
"Khazzouh is Lebanese-Australian, so he can play for both [countries]," Abboud explains. "We hope he will end up playing for Lebanon, it's for his best."
As with most national teams, of course, another concern for the Lebanese national side will be the issue of which naturalized player they will bring.
Lebanon has had a storied history and long list of naturalized cagers — names like Joe Vogel, Jackson Vroman, Loren Woods, Sam Hoskin and Garnett Thompson are but a few who have helped the Cedars achieve success.
For this year, though, with wingmen like Terrell Stoglin and Jasmon Youngblood dominating proceedings in the LBL, we may see Lebanon employ a naturalized guard or small forward instead of the usual frontcourt player.
Before the West Asia qualifiers commence on May 25, however, Lebanese basketball junkies will also be lobbying for living legend Fadi El Khatib to return to national team duties.
Recently word has spread about the Lebanese Tiger signifying his intention to retire from international play, but his fans are clamoring for him to give it one last go this year.
"Khatib said he will retire, but my honest opinion is that he will be there for one last time," Abboud offered. "He is still in his best shape ever, scoring 30 or more [points] every game, and he has to try for the big title for one last time."
Going all out for the Asian title is only natural for a team as ambitious and talented as Lebanon, but there are other countries that will serve as considerable stumbling blocks.
"Iran and Philippines come as the toughest in my opinion," Abboud said.
Regardless of which other teams stand in the way, Lebanon's new coach and new players will serve to give their intense fan-base renewed hope in 2015.
The goal is lofty, but the Cedars now have the tools to achieve what they've never been able to do - play in the Olympics.
"Hopefully, we will be the champions of WABA and Asia," said Nassar.
"To reach the Olympics, this is our target."
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