Road to the Olympics is getting very short, and it begins tonight
WUHAN, Hubei province - The real work begins today.
The reward: A trip to London.
After breezing through the group stage, China moves up to the crossover round for a quarterfinal game against Lebanon at the 26th FIBA Asia Championship.
"We are about to start, that's where we are," China coach Bob Donewald said after thrashing Japan, 84-58, in the final group match on Wednesday.
"This tournament begins tonight. There will be a team that wins three in a row and goes to London. We are ready."
Asia's top eight squads, including two-time defending champion Iran and Chinese rival South Korea, will compete in the three-day knockout stage with the stakes high indeed.
An automatic berth to the 2012 Summer Olympics and two places at next year's Olympic qualifying tournament are on offer.
Coming in with a beat-up, aging roster, Donewald chose to rest his stars to "keep them fresh for the ultimate fight" while practicing his unseasoned bench players in the "warm-up" pool games.
Even as it was topping the six-game group stage with an average margin of victory of 27 points, China unearthed some treasures on the bench.
Forward Yi Li totaled 33 points, nine rebounds and two steals in China's last two games, against Jordan and Japan. Yi's sharp shooting off the dribble filled the hole left by injured scorer Wang Shipeng, and he also proved adept at guarding opponents' shooters on the perimeter.
"(Yi) probably put on his best show since he joined the national squad. He's on fire offensively, but the most important thing he brought is defense.
"We are coming in so beat-up and old at certain positions. We wanted to balance minutes (in the early games). We tried to play all twelve guys in the pool stage. Our young bench guys got drilled and proved they were tough enough," Donewald said.
Meanwhile, China will rely on its size, hoping to ride its overwhelming power in the paint to victory.
The team's four big men, including new backbone Yi Jianlian and veteran Wang Zhizhi, took turns posting up for easy baskets and second-chance points while clearing space for shooters like Sun Yue and Zhu Fangyu to knock down open 3-pointers.
"We feel our strategy is size. We are posting people up, getting them in the paint and going to the free throw line. That's what we would do," Donewald said.
That works just fine for Yi, who put together an 18-point, 13-rebound double-double against Japan.
"No matter who we meet, we will stick to this way of beating them," he said. "We never thought about losing coming though the tournament. We believe we can win the final game."
Undefeated China is confident about its chances against Lebanon in the quarterfinals, while chief rival Iran shouldn't face much trouble from Jordan.
South Korea, which has proven it might be trouble for the two favorites, could edge out Japan if its shooting game runs smoothly.
That could set up a semifinal with China.
In the other quarterfinal, the refocused Philippines will encounter mobile Chinese Taipei for a potential semifinal clash with Iran.
Come Sunday night, somebody will have punched a ticket to London.