Height could be an issue as Korea faces tough fight at FIBA World CupTrying to win one out of possible five games may not sound like a lofty goal, but Korea at the 2019 men’s basketball world championship, which tips off this weekend, will have to scratch, claw and grind in pursuit of that one victory.
Korea will first go up against Argentina (No. 5) at 8:30 p.m. Saturday (all local times), followed by Russia (No. 10) at 8:30 p.m. Monday and Nigeria (No. 33) at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. All games will be in Wuhan, China.
The top two nations from the group will reach the next round, while the bottom two will fall to the classification group against the two bottom feeders from Group A in Guangzhou, China. Korea is assured of playing at least five games - three in the group phase and two in the classification round.
Kim has said the realistic goal for his team is to eke out a win in the group play. In its previous World Cup appearance in 2014, Korea went 0-5. Before that, in 1998, the team also lost all five games.
Korea hosted a four-nation, tuneup tournament over the past week and played three other World Cup participants - Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Angola in the field. After losing to Lithuania and the Czechs, Korea salvaged a win over Angola on Tuesday, which Kim said was an important morale boost for his squad.
Korea is a smallish team, with its tallest player, center Kim Jong-kyu, listed at 207 centimeters (6 feet 9 inches). Fellow center, naturalized player Ricardo Ratliffe, is 8 centimeters shorter, though he has been the rock in the low post since obtaining Korean citizenship last year.
Kim Jong-kyu started all three games in the exhibition tournament and played substantial minutes. But he looked tentative and frequently passed up open shots, while also having trouble on the defensive end against bigger opponents.
Coach Kim could often be heard yelling instructions at the 28-year-old center during those games, and the player also got an earful during timeouts.
“He’s working hard, but he’s not where he should be yet,” the coach said Tuesday. “And he knows it. I want to make sure he hears about it during games. We need him to play with more confidence.”
For such an obvious underdog team, confidence can be fleeting. In the first game against Lithuania last Saturday, Korea shot only 1-of-14 from three-point range. But coach Kim urged them to keep taking shots, and Korea suddenly became a volume-shooting team. Against the Czechs on Sunday, 10 players attempted at least a shot from downtown, led by Lee Dae-sung’s 12, and the team went 10-of-38 from downtown. Then against Angola on Tuesday, the team drained 10 out of 28 attempts from distance, with guard Lee Jung-hyun going 4-of-10.
Korea’s mettle will be tested from the get-go against Argentina.
Real Madrid guard Facundo Campazzo will be a handful for Korea, as will former NBA forward Luis Scola, who averaged 12 points and 6.7 rebounds per game in 10 NBA seasons. The 39-year-old will be playing at his fifth Basketball World Cup.
Russia will be without some of its NBA talent, including guard Alexey Shved and center Timofey Mozgov, but will send nine players over 200 centimeters.
Nigeria is the only team in Group B ranked below Korea, but rankings can be deceiving, since the African side will be led by a pair of NBA players, Josh Okogie of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Al-Farouq Aminu of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Okogie, a first-round selection by the Wolves last year, averaged 7.7 points, 2.9 boards and 1.2 dimes per game as a rookie. Aminu is a nine-year veteran with career averages of 7.7 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
Veteran guard Kim Sun-hyung, who played at the 2014 World Cup, said this year’s team is far more experienced, and Ratliffe has solidified the team’s low-post attacks. Forward Choi Jun-yong added the team’s collective mindset is to go for not just one win but three wins in the group stage.
This year’s World Cup also doubles as an Olympic qualification event. The top team from Asia will secure a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In addition to Korea, Asian teams in the tournament are China, Iran, Jordan, the Philippines and Japan, with the latter already guaranteed a place in the Olympics as the host nation.
Korea’s last appearance in the Olympic men’s basketball tournament came in 1996.