MANILA, Philippines – The Iran national basketball team Filipinos will see on the court this week no longer looks like the squad that tormented Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Asia Championship 3 years ago.
Players have aged, bodies have slowed, and it’s time to usher in a new era of Iranian cagers.
National team head coach Dirk Bauermann has been working on rebuilding with a set of younger players over the past months, and he plans on giving them more burn in a pair of tune-up games versus the Philippine team on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“[The tune-up game will be] extremely beneficial. It’s a core part of our preparation. And to be able to play here in the Philippines against such a good team, such a well-coached team, is going to be really good for our young players,” he said Sunday, June 5, at Hotel Novotel in Araneta Center.
Gilas and Iran will work on simulating various game situations on Tuesday, June 7 – which will be closed to the public – and will then play a full game on Wednesday, June 8 before paying fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum at 7 pm.
“Everybody’s going to try to win and leave his best game on the floor,” Bauermann said. “We have the highest respect for Gilas and coach (Tab Baldwin) and we know it’s going be a very difficult game for us, but we have a young group of guys that have played really well so far and that have jelled and exceeded expectations. Hopefully, we’ll be able to give them a good game.”
The Iranians, who arrived Saturday night, June 4, will also be vying for a Rio Olympics ticket in the 2016 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament from July 4 to 10. Unlike the Filipinos, who will be playing before their home crowd, Iran will be in the Turin, Italy tournament.
Leading the team will be FIBA World Cup vets Oshin Sahakian and Arsalan Kazemi.
“Basically it's going to help us to get the experience, we have a very young team. Every game that we play is going to give us more experience,” team captain Sahakian said, as translated by Kazemi.
“We're going to be in different situations like we were in WABA and we came out pretty well. Those are all experiences for the future.”
Iran, which began preparing for the Qualifier in May and will also travel to China and Latvia for training, is particularly transitioning from the “Golden Generation” to a younger generation of players.
Bauermann said 6 core players from that lineup, which won 3 FIBA Asia titles, are no longer with the team right now, including forward Nikkhah Bahrami, and guard Mehdi Kamrani, who comprise two of the team’s “Big 3”.
The 7-foot-2 center Hamed Haddadi is still with the team for the Qualifier but will not be joining them in Manila owing to personal matters he has to attend to.
“It’s very different,” Bauermann said of the current lineup. “I think last year, we were the oldest team in the tournament. Now we have a very young team. The country has a very good young generation, players that are between 19 and 23 years old. And they’ve done a good job so far.”
Bauermann explained how there have been “very open conversations” and individual talks with each of the veterans about transitioning. He gave assurances that although guys such as Bahrami and Kamrani aren’t with the team at present, the door is never closed for future participation.
“Guys get older and when they are 33, 35, 36 years old, a younger generation has to carry the torch so it's a natural process, and we have to start that process this season because we felt that was the perfect time to do that,” the coach explained, noting the bronze medal finish at last year’s FIBA Asia did not necessarily spark the rebuilding phase.
Among the young guns are 22-year-old forward Amir Sedighi, 21-year-old swingman Vahid Dalirzehan, and 19-year-old, 6-foot-8 center Salar Monji, who is not with the team in Manila for now.
Young players with previous experience are also given bigger roles, such as Behnam Yakhchali, who came off the bench last year but is now the starting point guard.
In playing Gilas, Iran looks to build on learnings from sweeping the WABA Championship 3 days ago.
“Right now we're just focused on the process. Even though it's a cliche but we try to get better each and every game. And like I said we played at a consistently high level in the WABA Championship, which to me was a surprise because when you have a young team, you tend to have a lot of ups and downs,” Bauermann explained.
“But we were very consistent and showed a lot of mental toughness playing well under difficult circumstances.”
“Size matters in our game, athleticism matters in our game, but these guys also know how to play basketball. They have a high basketball IQ, they play together, they share the ball. So it’s not just the raw talent, and that’s the most important thing,” he added.