Omri Casspi at EuroBasket 2017..
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Israel begins the long-road to the 2019 FIBA World Cup on Friday when it entertains Estonia at the Drive-In Arena in Tel Aviv. But even though qualification will run until February 2019, and Israel will have to come through 16 games to reach the tournament in China, anything but a win on Friday would already be a significant blow to the blue-and-white’s hopes.
Israel faces Greece, Great Britain and Estonia in Group H, with the top three-placed teams to advance to the second round. Israel visits Greece next Monday.
The first round of qualifying will run until July 2018, with the second round to be played between September 2018 and February 2019.
All results from the first qualification round are carried over to the second round, lending every game added significance, including against Estonia at home.
The top three in the second round, which will be comprised of four groups of six teams, will secure a berth in the World Cup.
There are plenty of question marks hanging over the new-look Israel team, with the blue-and-white undergoing an overhaul following the disappointing showing in EuroBasket 2017. Oded Katash was named as the new head coach in place of Erez Edelstein and called up only six players who took part in last summer’s European Championships (Gal Mekel, Bar Timor, Oz Blayzer, Idan Zalmanson, Richard Howell and Shawn Dawson).
Katash stood by his word of significantly dropping the average age of the roster by summoning youngsters Ben Altit, Joaquin Szuchman, Tomer Ginat, Rafi Menco, Yiftach Ziv and Tamir Blatt, who are all looking to make their first real in-game impression with the senior national team.
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The 20-year-old Blatt, son of coach David Blatt, looked set to miss out after twisting his knee awkwardly during Hapoel Holon’s overtime win at Maccabi Ashdod on Saturday. But an MRI showed he escaped almost unscathed, avoiding what looked to be a serious knee injury and he joined the team in training on Wednesday.
Maccabi Tel Aviv’s lone representative is forward Jake Cohen, who is returning to the blue-and-white after three years. Cohen missed Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague game against Barcelona on Thursday night to play for the national team, but Katash said that the reason he didn’t call up any other players from the yellow-and-blue had nothing to do with the conflicting schedules.
In the past, teams qualified for the World Cup via the continental championships, but the new format means that almost all Euroleague players will miss out, forcing many teams to use significantly under-strength rosters.
NBA players will also not be participating in most of the qualifiers, only being available to play in games to be held during the off-season. Israel isn’t as affected as other teams, but will still have to manage without Golden State Warriors forward Omri Casspi.
“It’s kind of weird, obviously. No NBA, no Euroleague playing in these qualifications. Kind of taking away from the fun of the game, in a sense,” Casspi told the Associated Press. “It’ll be hard to see the guys going and battling without being there, but that’s part of the game.”
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