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Asia Cup Expert Opinions: What do the Qasioun Eagles need to do to soar towards Asia Cup 2021?
DAMASCUS (Syria) - What a ride it’s been for Syria through the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers so far. From suffering a blowout loss to Iran to start their campaign to a massive upset against that same team later in the year, you can say that Syria has really seen it all.
Syria are in Group E and the race to direct qualification to Asia Cup 2021 will be tight down to the very last second. Nonetheless, they’ve displayed that they have the quality worthy of being among the top teams in Asia later this year in Indonesia.
We checked in with our experienced experts/commentators Jeff Taylor and Josh Bett for their insights about Syria. Jeff has been a journalist since 1990 and has been covering the international basketball scene since 1996. Josh is a multilingual rising star as an international basketball commentator who is ready to hype up any exciting play to the max.
Syria have had some strong teams in the Asia Cup in the past. What is your impression of them recently?
JT: I like how Syria have twice been able to put very bad results behind them and win games. In their opener, Syria crashed to a 46-point defeat with Hamed Haddadi coming up an assist shy of a triple-double for Iran. It was blowout city. Yet they came back and won a tight game against Saudi Arabia next time out.
Even worse was their defeat to Qatar in the second window because Syria led by several points midway through the last quarter but completely lost their poise and turned the ball over repeatedly. They snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But they bounced back again, this time against Iran. Syria hit back from a 10-point deficit midway through the second quarter and claimed one of the most famous wins in the nation’s hoops history.
JB: Syria are a disciplined team who play within themselves. They are led in the back court by a great shooting point guard in Rami Merjaneh and they have a solid backcourt of players in Jamil Saddir and Wael Jlilati.
We’ve seen Syria at their lowest and highest points throughout these Qualifiers. What is something - aside from winning - that they need to do to get that qualification spot to Asia Cup 2021?
JT: Composure, poise - whatever you want to call it, they need it. Turnovers can be devastating to a team like Syria, so they need to make the simple plays. They need to be ready when an opponent suddenly applies a full court press. Otherwise, turnovers lead to points.
Another thing, Syria must be strong with the basketball, not just in terms of avoiding turnovers but when it comes to finishing plays. When they attack the basket, they need to finish even if there’s contact. If there is still time on the shot clock, don’t settle for a bad shot but work for a good one.
Equally important is the mental aspect. Syria have to believe in themselves. They have to play for each other and commit to the game plan.
JB: Syria has a balanced squad which is going to help them match up well against Saudi Arabia in the next window for qualification. I think Syria has to try and win this match by slowing the tempo on offense to prevent Saudi Arabia from playing their high tempo run-and-gun game. Abdul Wahab Alhamwi has to be able to play substantial minutes as a rim protector. Syria's offensive game plan is usually centered around a pick and roll with Merjaneh, and spot shooters in Saddir and Jlilati. They also have Kell, who for me is able to isolate and score at will.
Syria has battled through difficulties in the country which might have made it difficult to even play a proper game of organized basketball in the recent years. What can you say about their spirit to overcome that and still be competitive at the Asia Cup level?
JT: It’s very easy to sit here and dissect a team’s weaknesses but it’s true that you have to take other things on board, the difficulties a team has in just getting together to practice. Kudos to everyone for pulling together in the tough times.
JB: One of the most beautiful moments I have seen in international basketball was when the Syrian fans celebrated with the players after their victory over Saudi Arabia. This is the beauty of basketball in that the sport unites people together and reflects the passion and greatness of every club and nation.
The support from the Syrian fans just shows that the magnitude and importance of what basketball means to them. This is their chance to forget about anything else that is happening in the world and instead to be proud of their nation through the accolades of their national basketball team. The Syrian players acknowledge this support and they will continue to use the energy to keep achieving greater accomplishments.
Heading into Window 2 of the Asia Cup Qualifiers, Syria made some big changes to their team whether it was a shift in the head coaching spot or adding in a key player to the roster. What do you think about those changes?
JT: Let’s just that Trey Kell has been huge. Hopefully he continues to play because he’s a proven scorer and someone with a lot of experience in the States.
JB: The addition of head coach Joe Salerno is an excellent choice. He is a coach who can not only relate to the players, but also enable them to raise the level of their game. He is a coach who brings a much different yet excellent approach for his team to go out and compete.
The addition of Kell is massive not only because he is a great scorer, but he also understands how to play together alongside Rami Merjaneh. What I like about Kell is that he knows when and where to take over, and he also knows how to effectively facilitate for his teammates.
Who do you feel has been Syria’s MVP so far through the Qualifiers?
JT: If you break it down into wins, without question Rami Merjaneh was the MVP against Saudi Arabia because of his all-round contributions in that game. Trey Kell was the MVP in the second window because of his 34 points, eight rebounds ,and four assists in the win over Iran.
JB: For me, it's Rami Merjaneh. Let's just put it this way: I was very fortunate to have been able to commentate Syria's victory over Saudi Arabia, where Merjaneh caught my attention very quickly. His ability to attack the zone, shoot the ball, and execute a pick and roll was outstanding in that game. I called my father, who was a professional basketball coach, that night after the game, and I told him "Dad you have to see this guy Rami Merjaneh play! He is spectacular!".
My father who is also a commentator had seen him play and immediately said "I agree, he is a fantastic player to watch!".
Who are the players you feel can be a surprising key contributor in the crucial stage of the Qualifiers ahead?
JT: Anthouny Bakar. I remember four years ago at the Asia Cup in Lebanon, he showed a couple of flashes of ability but didn’t get much playing time. He did get some more minutes in the Asian Qualifiers for the World Cup but in the first couple of games in these Asia Cup Qualifiers, he barely played. He got his chance in the win over Iran and delivered, pouring in 12 points.
JB: Jamil Saddir. I like his game because he is a tough player who plays with a lot of heart and passion. He has a nice midrange game and likes to post up when he has a mismatch on defense. I think he is the kind of player who acts as a warrior for his team defensively and plays with the kind of emotion that his teammates can play off of.
You’ve both had moments commentating in games Syria has played in. What’s been a favorite moment for you calling those games?
JT: I loved the excitement of the Syria vs. China game at Asia Cup 2017 in Lebanon, with a spot in the Quarter-Finals at stake. Syria went up by double digits and looked like they might spring a huge upset. Michael Madanly was incredible, scoring 35 points. I was so pumped up that I couldn’t stay in my seat. China came back and won it, though, 81-79.
JB: The best moment I have had commenting on Syria's games was when Alhamwi scored a three pointer against Saudi Arabia. These kinds of moments are great because the energy and emotion they bring to the game make it more exciting. I hope in the future, Habu scores another three pointer.
What’s a fun nickname you might have for a player on this team that you might want to claim coming up with?
JT: I like calling Sharif Al Osh “the Sheriff”. If he comes off the bench when Syria are struggling, he has an assertive character. As the saying goes, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
There’s also a clothing company called OshKosh B'gosh in America. When Sharif, or “The Sheriff”, makes a big play, I sometimes find myself shouting, “Oshkosh B’gosh”!
JB: Rami #MagicMerjaneh !!!
We’ve talked about Trey Kell a bit already, but can you dig a bit deeper and maybe drop off a possible moniker you might have for him?
JT: This guy can just flat out fill it up. He can pour in the points. He’s a scoring machine. So when he gets into his rhythm, I like to say Trey “You better hold him at bay” Kell strikes again.
JB: Trey Kell is a fantastic player, and we have seen what he can do with his scoring against Qatar and Iran. However, I think he needs to be paid homage for his basketball IQ and being able to also facilitate for other players on the Syria national team. Kell is a great scorer, but he is not selfish because he knows when and where to take over. He also has great vision and can pick out a pass very well.
Abdulwahab Alhamwi stands out for Syria, not only for his size, but his personality as well. What can you say about one of Syria’s most recognizable faces?
JT: I like his enthusiasm. Does he get the maximum out of his ability and size? Probably not. When you’re a member of the seven-foot club - and he is at 7’2” (2.18M) - you have the potential to be a ferocious rim protector. So more than anything, that’s what I’d like to see from Alhamwi, at least a few rejections in every game.
Also, because it’s unusual to see big fellas like Alhamwi hit three-pointers, which he can do from time to time, I have a nickname when he pulls up and not only takes but makes a three-pointer. I like to shout, “Well, well, what Alhami here for three!” It’s like “Well, well, what have we here?”.
JB: Habu for me is an iconic basketball player and ambassador for Syrian Basketball. With his size and power, he can score when the ball is given to him in a good situation. I think his biggest asset for Syria is that he is a defensive rim protector who can defensively match up well with any big player in the Asia Cup. However, I think his personality and humble spirit is great for the team, too. His presence with the players when entering arenas definitely will lift their spirits and confidence. I have had the chance to meet him and I can say that he is a kind hearted and one of the most benevolent individuals that I have met.
Syria are also known as the Qasioun Eagles, which is already a cool moniker, but what else do you guys have in your bag as fun nicknames for this team?
JT: I like alliteration with countries that begin with “S”, so the Syrian Synergy. The origin of synergy is the Greek word sunergos which means ‘working together’.
Also if they are really humming along and doing well, I like to call them the Syrian Symphony.
JB: 20 years ago, Syria finished in 4th place at the FIBA Asia Cup, lets say that the #QasiounEagles are on the #ComeBack and the fans can all say #WhyNotUsWhyNotNow.