Changing of the guard

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, April 26, 2018
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Yao Ming, an eight-time NBA All-Star and member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who now serves as president of the Chinese Basketball Association, checks out a recent national team training session in Beijing.

Younger and hungrier, China's new-look women's basketball team is on a mission to reconquer Asia.

Once considered the nation to beat in continental competition, Team China has been in steady decline since the retirements of former WNBA players Chen Nan and Miao Lijie, who spearheaded the run to the semifinals of the Beijing Olympics.

Four consecutive losses to Japan since 2013 - including a humiliating 85-50 blowout in the final of the 2015 FIBA Asian Cup - were symptomatic of China's struggles, but now head coach Xu Limin, who took the reins a year ago, is wiping the slate clean.

"The gap between us and the world's best teams, including our main rivals in Asia, is widening and we must rise to the challenge with a long-term vision not to rely on the veterans anymore," Xu said after a recent training session at the national camp in Beijing.

"Rather than setting our sights on winning anything big anytime soon, we're better to focus on more realistic goals to build a team strong enough to outplay Japan, South Korea and even Chinese Taipei every time we meet in Asia."

Xu was an assistant coach when China finished 10th, its worst Olympic showing since 1984, at Rio 2016. He accepted a promotion to head coach last April.

Three months later he realized he had underestimated the enormity of the task after a Japan team without star players Asami Yoshida and Ramu Tokashiki beat China 74-71 in the Asian Cup semis.

"Our Asian neighbors, Japan and South Korea, have outnumbered us in youth participation on campuses and in communities, so it's not strange we don't have enough talent to compete, never mind win," said Xu.

With the Asian Games and the FIBA Women's World Cup, formerly the world championship, tipping off in August and September respectively, Team China is focusing on gelling a young 16-player roster, which includes just three veterans with international experience.

"We have a great energy here fueled by the desire to get better every day as a team," said veteran captain Shao Ting after an intense two-hour training session, backdropped by two photographs hung high on the wall of Japan celebrating its 2015 Asian Cup victory in Wuhan - a bid to motivate the troops.

"Hopefully, we can soon replace those photos with pictures of our own moment of victory.

"We might lag behind technically and tactically right now, but age is on our side and we have plenty of room to get better," added Shao, who had a tryout with the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx last April.

The improvement of young center Han Xu, 19, and playmaker Li Yuan, 18, the combination that helped China finish fourth at the under-17 worlds in 2016, has reinforced Shao's confidence.

Though not tested yet in the domestic league, the 6-foot-9 Han has drawn scouting attention from the WNBA after averaging 15.9 points, 11 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in seven games at the under-19 worlds last year.

Xu, meanwhile, is hopeful China's size advantage can yield positive results at this summer's Asiad, which opens on Aug 18 in Indonesia.

"We should make better use of our height in the paint but not lose the speed in transition and shift on defense," said Xu, who led Beijing to three WCBA championships between 2011 and 2017.

In the meantime, China will take part in an eight-game exhibition series in the United States, starting with a game against the host national team at Key Arena in Seattle on Thursday.

The series also includes back-to-back encounters against the three-time WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks and two-time title winner Seattle Storm.

The 2018 WNBA season tips off on May 18. Training camps open on Sunday, and preseason games tip off May 6-13.

"The intensity of contact, the speed of transition and the physicality of the games in the US will be an eye-opener for our young teammates and help them get used to international competition," said Shao.

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