Perhaps the youngest ever Tall Blacks team to take the court in an official FIBA tournament will do so tonight when Paul Henare’s fresh side take on Kazakhstan in their first game at the 2017 Asia Cup in Beirut, Lebanon.
With an average age of just 23, the Tall Blacks are taking a step into the unknown when they play Kazakhstan, Lebanon and South Korea in three pool games, with the top three teams earning the right to stay in the tournament, with the winner of the group automatically progressing to the quarterfinals.
Henare though does not second guess himself when it comes to the decision to give his senior players a breather as he contemplates a busy international calendar, with FIBA World Cup qualifying games and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games assuming top priority for a group of players that are not paid to pull on the black singlet.
“I wouldn’t change a thing about the way we have approached this international window. We are playing the long game here, for the benefit of our experienced players to ensure they are fully committed and available come the international windows and Commonwealth Games, but also for the benefit of this group on tour, and they are the sole focus as we start the Asia Cup.
“We are building depth for the future while enabling a very capable group of young men to find their feet on the international stage. There are no excuses, we will hit the floor knowing the task that is in front of us and we are aiming to win every game we play, that is simply the Tall Blacks way. If anything, this has gone better than I had planned, I know that the players as individuals and as a team have worked their butts off, trained hard, travelled well and picked up some good experiences to learn from.”
Captained by 22-year-old Rueben Te Rangi, the tour has already exposed five players to international play on this tour, with Sam Timmins, Dyson King-Hawea, Luke Aston, James Hunter and 19-year-old Isaac Letoa (he celebrated his birthday on tour) pulling on the black singlet for the first time in China.
Te Rangi is enjoying the chance to lead his national team, but is the first to admit there is no play book when it comes to this sort of thing.
“I am just looking to lead on and off the floor by being myself and looking to improve every day and stay true to the values of the Tall Blacks. I am honoured to have played alongside some of our greats and to learn what it is to be a part of the Tall Black family. It is from those players that I must apply some lessons in the way I try to lead this team now, but we are learning together on and off the court. We are a tight group of boys and looking forward to playing in a FIBA tournament and doing all those who have played before us, ourselves and our families proud.”
Henare says the team has been on a steep learning curve, something that had to happen given the nature of the tournament.
“China was great preparation for us, we played six games in seven days against different styles of opposition. The attitude and effort of the players cannot be faulted, but they naturally have a few more highs and lows as young players, that is perhaps the toughest thing to learn and understand – that you simply cannot have an off day at this level, you have to be able to put all other things aside and be at your best when you pull on that black singlet.”
Kazakhstan will be another level, ranked 57th in the FIBA rankings, the Central Asian former Soviet Republic is, like all other teams in Asia, focused on the Asia Cup as their pinnacle event and has their top roster assembled.
“They are going to be tough, they will be very structured and disciplined and perhaps play a more European style of game, they are a good shooting team all round, with ‘bigs’ and guards alike that can shoot the ball.
“Most of their players are in their local league so we have been able to pick up some information from there, but they have only had one preparation game that we could pick up on so, we are not going in blind but we are not going in knowing this team like we might know some others. We have been giving our guys as much information as we think is relevant and can be taken on in such a short time. It will be a good challenge and I am looking forward to seeing how we go.”
New Zealand is in Pool C with Kazakhstan, Lebanon (43) and South Korea (30), with the winner of the pool straight to the quarter finals, second and third progress to a quarter final qualifier, while fourth place packs their bags and heads home.