China's young guns locked and loaded

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Veteran forward Yi Jianlian (not pictured) and young point guard Guo Ailun were both instrumental as Team China just came up short in a morale-boosting 90-84 loss to Brazil in Guangzhou on Friday. China opens its World Cup campaign against Cote d'Ivoire in Beijing this Saturday. [INFRONT CHINA/FOR CHINA DAILY]

With just five days to go until the FIBA World Cup tips off, anticipation and excitement levels have reached fever pitch for Team China's young hoopsters.

The eight host cities are abuzz, the venues are sold out and the stars are lacing up as the squad enters its final tune-up for the 32-nation tournament, formerly the world championships, which will run from Aug 31-Spet 15.

Inspired by their predecessors' eighth-place finish at the 2008 Olympics, China's current crop is aiming to channel the spirit of that memorable run at the Beijing Games.

"Those highlights are so adrenaline-pumping that we just can't wait to make our own history at the World Cup," guard Guo Ailun said after watching a video of China's greatest moments on court at a mobilization ceremony last week.

"Who wouldn't want to play on the biggest stage of the game on home soil and try to make your fellow compatriots proud? It's an opportunity that comes once in a lifetime so we are going to make it count," said the 25-year-old, who made his international debut at 16 at the 2010 world championships in Turkey.

Joining Guo at the event, organized by sponsor TCL Corp, in Guangzhou last week were former NBA players Yi Jianlian, Zhou Qi and 2016 NBA draftee Wang Zhelin (the Memphis Grizzlies' 57th pick).The trio has been dubbed a modern version of the "Walking Great Wall", a term used to describe the legendary Yao Ming and his peers in the early 2000s.

As the only member of the 2008 team on the current roster, Yi will be China's main pillar around the basket, while rangy young center Zhou offers solid rim protection. Wang, for his part, has improved his post play enough to make a significant impact on both ends of the floor.

It's Guo, though, that has emerged as the team's beating heart this summer.

Relying heavily on perimeter offense, he produced another explosive performance in the 90-84 loss to Brazil in Guangzhou on Friday, shooting a team-high 22 points, including three 3-pointers.

During China's NBA Summer League stint in Las Vegas, Guo averaged 15.7 points and 3.7 assists in five games against NBA rookies and G-League veterans. His highlights included a crossover dribble that sent the Charlotte Hornets' Cody Martin sprawling in China's only win (84-80) of the offseason series.

The 6-foot-2 guard has served notice to the world that the host shouldn't be underestimated, according to Brazil coach Aleksandar Petrovic.

"He did an impressive job to break down our defense like all the world's top guards could do," said Petrovic, a former Croatian player and older brother of the late NBA legend Drazen Petrovic (1991-93 New Jersey Nets).

"From what I saw today, China has a much better chance than its group rivals to reach the last eight. I can tell you because I know what all the teams are capable of and China is good enough to pass the first round and possibly the second round."

Drawn in Group A at west Beijing's Wukesong Arena, where the 2008 Olympic tournament was staged, China will start its campaign against Cote d'Ivoire on Aug 31 before facing Poland and Venezuela.

Qualifying for next year's Tokyo Olympics as the best Asian performer at the World Cup and trying to equal or even better the nation's best eighth-place finish are the goals for the host.

Li Nan, head coach of China and a sharpshooter on the 2008 Olympics squad, said his young players gained plenty of confidence from the brave fight against Brazil, but still need to toughen up for the Cup challenge.

"The way we hung in there facing such an aggressive, fast and athletic opponent like Brazil was pretty pleasing," said Li. "We didn't manage to maintain the energy and focus throughout the four periods and this is where we need to improve.

"I feel like we have the confidence and strength to dare to win against some higher-ranked rivals."

It was China's closest loss to Brazil, a sixth-place finisher at the 2014 worlds in Spain, in 25 years.

According to FIBA's latest Cup power ranking, 14th seed China is predicted to top Group A by winning all three first-round games.

The top two teams in each group will then be drawn into four new groups to fight for the quarterfinal berths.

However, a left ankle sprain sustained by Zhou against Brazil on Friday has cast a shadow on the host's prospects, even though an initial examination determined the injury is not serious.

Zhou, who has returned to the CBA's Xinjiang Flying Tigers after being waived by the Houston Rockets in December, averaged 11.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in four NBA Summer League games.

TCL commitment

As Team China prepares for the Cup challenge, fans and sponsors are also doing their part to rally the players. TCL, a Guangdong-based home appliance manufacturer, organized a mobilization ceremony for the host on Thursday in Guangzhou, where fans and its business partners interacted with the players, including Guo, Yi and Zhou.

The company, a sponsor of China's national basketball program since 2009 and a FIBA partner, sent the team a scroll of Chinese calligraphy, which read, "Basketball enters China time", as a gift, and unveiled the "General Cup", the trophy TCL designed for the Player of the Game award at the tournament.

To enhance consumers' game-watching experience, the brand has also launched a series of Cupthemed products featuring artificial intelligence, QLED technology and large-sized screens.

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