The Indian men's national team ended the first window of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers with a 1-1 record. Both were away games played in Bahrain and Iraq respectively. After losing their first game to Bahrain by one point, India bounced back with a dominant win over Iraq.
Here are five takeaways from India's performance:
#1 Head Coach Veselin Matic has started delivering
Since taking over as head coach almost a year ago, Serbian Veselin Matic's impact on the team is starting to show. In a hiring strategy which is the reverse of Kevin Durant leaving OKC to the Warriors, India appointed Matic, who was at the helm of the Syria team which had knocked India out of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers in 2018.
Since Matic's appointment, India has retained its pole position at the South Asian level, but the ongoing FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers was the team's first real test. The one-point loss to Bahrain, ranked almost 40 spots lower, had many of us wondering if India's downward slide was continuing, but the resounding win over Iraq underlined Matic's ability as a coach who has a keen understanding of how to build a National Team programme.
#2 The playmaking skills of Muin Bek Hafeez
The 23-year-old Tamil Nadu guard has been an absolute revelation through both games of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers. After putting up a balanced 13 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals against Bahrain, Bek raised it up a notch against Iraq, with a spectacular 24 pts, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals. He was India's most efficient player at +22.5 EFF.
More importantly, he showed excellent composure as a primary playmaker, a role that India has desperately needed in recent years. Bek's ability to play at his own pace, coupled with his all-round game (whether it is ball handling, outside shooting or rebounding- he averaged 8 rebounds a game, which is second only to centre Amritpal Singh), has meant that it took the pressure off of veteran Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, who is usually burdened with bringing the ball up the floor as well as running the entire offence.
#3 India's fluid offence
India averaged 22 assists per game, which is 7th among the 23 Asia Oceania teams that competed in this window (excluding China, whose games were postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak). India showed excellent ball reversal on both sides of the floor as well as inside-out, moved brilliantly without the ball, and also was patient in using the clock. India's execution on the offensive end meant the team never looked out of sorts scoring-wise and got good clean looks on almost every possession.
#4 India's FIBA Asia losing streak finally ends
For anyone following Indian men's basketball over the last few years, it's been a tough time, to say the least. Our men's team last won at the FIBA Asia level way back in September 2016, at the FIBA Asia Challenge. Since then the side got knocked out of the first round in both the FIBA Asia Cup 2017 (0-3) and the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers (0-6). No wonder then that the team was relieved after finally beating Iraq. As they say, losing, just like winning can become a habit that is hard to shake off!
#5 Centre Amritpal Singh still dominant
One key reason for India's slide in recent years has been the absence of India's Big Three of Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Amritpal Singh and Amjyot Singh, due to reasons ranging from injuries, administrative lapses to bans.
While 28-year-old guard Bhriguvanshi looked like he was still recovering from his ACL injury, 29-year-old centre Amritpal Singh seems to have fully healed from his own injury. Singh averaged a near double-double of 19.5 points and 8.5 boards across the two games, while also being a giant deterrent in the paint, influencing and altering shots on the defensive end.