NEW ZEALAND (NZL)
3rd appearance (2 consecutive)Tall Blacks away from Boomers' shadeAustralia are no longer the only competitive basketball team from Oceania. The Tall Blacks put Kiwi basketball on the map in 2002, when they finished in fourth place at the World Championships in Indianapolis. Don't be surprised if New Zealand once again reaches the top of the World…
New Zealand participated in their first international competition in 1986, as they were invited as a replacement team at the World Championships in Spain. But the haka didn't frighten anybody as the Tall Blacks won only one game - against Malaysia (77-75) - and left only one team behind them. New Zealand had to wait 14 years before coming back onto the international stage - this time at the Olympic Games. Australia were automatically qualified for the 2000 Olympics as they were hosting the competition, and the Kiwis only had to beat Guam (125-43) to book their ticket for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. They lost all of their games in the first round and defeated Angola (80-70) to once again avoid the last place. This was a decent performance for an inexperienced team that was competing for the first time in the Olympic Games.
The next season, American-born Tab Baldwin, who was already considered the most successful coach of Kiwi basketball, took the reins of the National Team. In his first competition at the head of the Tall Blacks, they created a huge surprise by dominating Australia 2-1 in the Oceania Championships and qualifying for the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis. For this competition, Baldwin called back seven of the 12 players who participated at the 2000 Olympic Games: Sean Marks, Phill Jones, Mark Dickel, Pero Cameron, Kirk Penney, Paul Henare and Robert Hickey as well as Nenad Vucinic as assistant coach. In Indianapolis, the Tall Blacks debuted very well by upsetting Russia (90-81) and Venezuela (98-85) before losing three consecutive games to Argentina, Germany and the United States. New Zealand then defeated China - thanks to 33 points by Jones - to qualify for the quarter-finals. Against Puerto Rico, who had previously beaten the United States, the Tall Blacks wrote history. Cameron scored the final eight points for his team, including two three-pointers, to give the Kiwis a 65-63 victory. But they were defeated by Yugoslavia and Germany to finish fourth. Tall Blacks captain Cameron was elected in the All-Tournament Team. Two years later, nine of the 12 players from Indianapolis returned to compete for the 2004 Olympic Games but didn't confirm their exceptional World Championships performance as they finished tenth.
The chore of the National Team has not been changed since 2000. Dickel, Henare, Jones, Penney and Cameron have played at two Olympics and one World Championships. Coach Baldwin will build his team around this group of experienced players. All of them have played in Europe, and some have also attended colleges in the United States. But Baldwin will miss one of the most important pieces of his puzzle: Sean Marks. The first Kiwi player to have ever played in the NBA decided to retire from the National Team. And despite Baldwin's insistence, Marks didn't change his mind. His experience both on the international stage and in the NBA would have been very valuable to the Tall Blacks. At 31, the Auckland native can still play at a very high level even if he didn't see significant playing time this season with the San Antonio Spurs. Ed Book, a 36 year-old centre, also announced he would not return to the National Team. Their absence is an issue for Baldwin but also an opportunity to start rejuvenating his frontcourt. Jones, Dillon Boucher, Tony Rampton and Cameron are all over 30, and Dickel will turn 30 in December. That's why Baldwin decided to call no less than 30 players to prepare the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan. The training camp was an opportunity for him to test a lot of young players and to take a picture of the Kiwi basketball landscape.
But contrary to Australia, New Zealand can't count on future superstars like Andrew Bogut or Brad Newley. Still, some of the young Kiwis are promising prospects and could become good surprises like Lindsay Tait, Craig Bradshaw, Calum MacLeod or Jeremy Kench. Concerning the frontcourt, Craig Bradshaw, Mika Vukona, Mike Homik and Miles Pearce are the most legitimate contenders to provide young blood for the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan. Tony Rampton's size might also be very useful to assist Tall Blacks captain Cameron in the paint. On the wings - along with returning Penney, Jones and Dillon Boucher - Paora Winitana and Aaron Olson, who both played at the 2004 Olympic Games, will compete with Brent Charleton, Casey Frank and Ben Hill for the remaining two spots. At point guard, Dickel and Henare may be very hard to remove. But Lindsay Tait and Jeremy Kench represent the future of Kiwi basketball at this post.
New Zealand have good chances to qualify for the one-eighth finals. Group B is not the toughest draw. And behind Germany and Spain, the Tall Blacks will compete with Angola, Japan and Panama to take one of the two remaining spots qualifying for the next round.