BEIRUT: Defending champions Lebanon take on Iraq Thursday in the opening day of the WABA Championship currently taking place in Tehran as a qualifier for the FIBA Asia Championship this August in Manila.
The Lebanese side know a win would see them get closer to securing a ticket to the big showdown this summer, with three teams out of four to represent the West Asian zone in the continental championship.
The last time both teams met was in the 2011 Pan Arab games in Doha, where The Cedars triumphed 89-75.
Although Lebanon will head to the match as favorites, they can’t take Iraq for granted as both teams will need some time to find their momentum in the first day of the competition.
Iraq haven’t made it to the Asian Championship since 1987 as they struggled to compete with the regional big three: Lebanon, Iran and Jordan.
Lebanon, meanwhile, hold a WABA record with three gold medals. Captain Fadi al-Khatib will lead, once again, the best talent in the Lebanese league, considered the strongest in the region.
Head coach Ghassan Sarkis, who led them to victory last year in Amman, is expected to start with Ali Mahmoud, Jean Abdel-Nour and Khatib in the backcourt, and American Reyshawn Terry and Roy Samaha down the post.
Lebanon bring size the Iraqis can’t match, with Terry and Khatib both able to receive the ball inside or hit shots from outside, making for a great duo. But the Iraqis are known for their fighting spirit and they will definitely try to close the perimeter to force their opponents to rely on 3-point shooting.
Elsewhere, host team Iran will face Jordan with both teams having a legacy of fierce battles over the last few years.
Jordan formerly knocked favorites Iran out from the quarterfinals of the 2011 Asia Championship in a thrilling 88-84 win, and they will be hoping for a repeat performance Thursday.
Both teams will miss several key players, as Iran will be without their NBA center Hamed Haddadi and NCAA rising star Arsalan Kazemi. Jordan will have to do without their point guard Sam Daghlas and high-flying forward Zaid Abbas.
The WABA Championship runs until Feb. 9.