China’s men’s basketball team was woeful at the past two Olympics. They went 0-5 three years ago in Rio de Janeiro, and had the same abysmal record in 2012 in London.
Now there is a big chance to make amends at home.
The two-week basketball World Cup opened yesterday across China with the hosts playing the Ivory Coast in Beijing.
They got off to a winning start, lifting themselves to 70-55 at full time after heading into the second half tied at 29.
“We lost all our games and came back. It was disappointing,” China coach Li Nan said of Rio. “This year we’ve put a lot of effort into preparing for this tournament and we want to show — with some adjustments and with the same core group of guys — that we can compete on the international level.”
China have tried foreign coaches — Americans and Europeans — but turned back inward to find success.
Conditions are favorable for China if they can exploit them. Their four-team group is modest with Poland, Ivory Coast and Venezuela, and home crowds should help push them to be among the group’s top two teams who advance.
Remnants of Beijing’s 2008 Olympics are major backdrops, although the tournament is on a much smaller scale and swallowed up by a sprawling city around which there are only a few indications the event is going on.
A well-known soccer fan, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday attended a lavish opening ceremony at the Water Cube, the 2008 swimming venue.
Former NBA and China star Yao Ming showed off the Naismith Trophy for the winners and shared the stage with dancers, singers and acrobats.
Across town, the venue built for basketball — originally called the Wukesong Arena and renamed the Cadillac Arena — is almost unrecognizable from 11 years ago with its gold and red exterior.
Li played for China in those 2008 Olympics, where they reached the quarter-finals, and former NBA center Yi Jianlian is the only player from the 2008 Olympics playing on this World Cup team.
“Looking back at the 2008 Olympics, we looked at this as our Olympics,” Yi said, speaking through an interpreter. “We want to look at this tournament as the same thing — as our basketball World Cup.”
In opening action yesterday, strongly fancied Serbia made a ruthless start to their title bid, thrashing Angola 105-59 in the opening match.
Serbia were strong favorites against Angola in Foshan and wasted no time stamping their mark on the 32-team World Cup.
The US, who have named a young side, open their defense tonight in Shanghai against the Czech Republic.
Serbian coach Sasha Djordjevic said that Gregg Popovich’s team remain the side to beat.
“I am not thinking about the USA team,” Djordjevic said. “I do respect them, I think they are the biggest favorites.”
“They don’t have some of the players, but they still have a great, great team with great players, great coach,” he added.
Guard Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings led the way for Serbia, scoring 24 points against the wilting Angolans.
Nikola Jokic, the lumbering Denver Nuggets All-Star who is key to Serbia’s chances, brought up 100 points with a free throw on the way to him racking up 14 points.
“Serious game, serious approach, serious preparation,” Djordjevic said. “It’s our trademark all these years — playing together, we like to share the ball, we like to pass, we have a lot of guys who are not selfish.”
In other matches, Russia edged Nigeria in a thriller in Group B.
Russia led at halftime, only for Nigeria to surge level at the end of the third quarter.
The Africans were in the ascendancy and led early in the fourth, but the Russians stormed back and they were tied 75-75 with less than a minute left.
However, it was the Russians who held their nerve, grabbing victory 82-77 after a tense final few seconds.
The Philippines were overwhelmed by Italy 108-62 in the first Group D match.
Amedeo Della Valle shined with 17 points for the Italians in Foshan, while the Philippines’ Jaymar Perez nabbed 15.
Spain played Tunisia, and Argentina faced South Korea in the late matches.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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