The New Zealand Tall Blacks have been undefeated in their overseas tour thus far, a clear indication they will be a force to reckon with in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Mall of Asia Arena on July 5-10.
The Tall Blacks have won their first three games in the Atlas International Basketball Challenge in Suzhou, China all in runaway fashion, speaking well of their buildup for the Manila OQT where they clash with Smart Gilas and France during elimination play.
The Kiwis were particularly impressive in their 98-74 whipping of the host Chinese after earlier triumphs over Belarus and Japan.
Michael Karena was their main man versus the Chinese with the 6-foot-10 rookie center top scoring with 18 points on a perfect 9-of-9 field shooting. Consistent performers for the Kiwis in the Chinese meet are brothers Corey and Tai Webster, Isaac Fotu and Jordan Ngatai.
With OKC Thunder center Steven Adams unavailable, not a single NBA player will be suiting up for New Zealand in its bid for a third Olympics stint after the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games.
The provisional Tall Blacks roster, however, features nine holdovers from the team that placed 15th of 24 teams in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. They are the Websters, Fotu, Tom Abercrombie, BJ Anthony, Jarrod Kenny, Rob Lowe, Mika Vukona, Everard Barlett.
Also contending for spots in the Final 12 are Karena, Ngatai, Finn Delany, Shea Lli, and Ethan Rusbatch.
They have the height, heft and game to match up with anyone in the six-team Manila OQT field slugging it out for a slot in the Rio Games.
Most are products of US collegiate basketball and have played in international play. Bartlett saw action in Iceland, Kenny and Anthony in Germany, Fotu in Spain and Lowe in Belgium. Abercrombie suited up with Washington State, Karena at Wright State in Ohio, Corey Webster at Lambuth U in Tennessee, Tai Webster at Nebraska, Delany at Southwest Baptist in Missouri, Ngatai at Brigham Young U-Hawaii, Rusbatch at Lincoln Trail Community College in Illinois and Fotu at the University of Hawaii.
Calling the shots for the team is Paul Henare, a longtime mainstay of the Tall Blacks who played one Olympics and two World Cups under current Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin.
Will Baldwin’s knowledge of New Zealand a trump card for Team Phl?
Baldwin has said his familiarity with the New Zealand team won’t necessarily translate into an advantage for the Philippines when the two teams clash on July 6.
If France lives up to its billing as the top seed, then the New Zealand-Philippine duel could well be a knockout battle for the second semis berth from Group B.
The Tall Blacks have been into two Olympics and five World Cups. They had their best showing in the world stage in the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis where they finished fourth behind Yugoslavia, Argentina and Germany.