MANILA, Philippines - A Lebanese team featuring returning star Fadi El-Khatib, a Chinese squad led by young promising giant Wang Zhelin and the Iranians backstopped by youth stars Saleh Foroutan and Behnam Yakhchali are among those raring to test the mettle of Smart Gilas Pilipinas in the fourth FIBA Asia Cup slated Sept. 14-22 in Tokyo, Japan.
Lebanon, China and Iran are among those fancied to make a good run in this tough Asian meet which also features Qatar, Chinese, Uzbekistan, Macau, India and the host team.
The Lebanese are out to defend the crown they won at home in Beirut in 2010, and they're fielding a team made formidable by the return of longtime star El-Khatib.
"We are not only going to compete, we are going to win the gold," said El-Khatib in a fibaasia.net report.
"I have always said that Lebanon can still compete with the best teams in Asia. It's only a matter of a couple things, mainly the chemistry and I think the players know each other pretty well now," added El-Khatib.
Lebanon, three-time finalist in the last six editions of the biennial FIBA Asia Championship, has just overhauled its lineup, for one, taking in former Meralco import Jarrid Famous to take over from Jackson Vroman as naturalized player.
The team also features Elie Stephan and Akl Rodriguez, fearsome gunners who lit the scoreboard in leading the Lebanese past Smart Gilas in their recent Jones Cup faceoff.
"Our plan is to qualify to the 2014 World Championship. Nothing changed. What we did was to pump new blood into the team, and obviously, we can see now a couple of players who are capable of leading the team such as Akl and Stephan," said Lebanon coach Ghassan Sarkis.
China should also be raring to make good in this tourney to make up for its woeful showing in the recent London Olympics.
Left out of their Olympic roster, seven-foot young behemoth Zhelin will finally be unveiled by China in Asian men's tourney.
Wang averaged 22.3 points and fired a three-pointer in the dying seconds to lift the Chinese past the Koreans, 93-91, in the gold-medal game of the recent FIBA Asia Under-18 championship in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
The Iranians are also bringing to Tokyo star players from their bronze-medal winning team in the Asian youth meet.
Foroutan’s and Yakhchali’s performance in the youth championship just enhanced their billing as the future of Iran basketball.
Foroutan collected 21 points and 11 rebounds while Yakhchali rifled in five three-pointers and totaled 24 points in the bronze-medal game versus Japan.
Iranian hotshot Nikah Bahrami, however, is likely to still be their team's lead star.
Six-foot-11 bulky center Asghar Kardoust will man the middle for the Iranians in the continued absence of injured star frontliner Hamed Haddadi.
Kardoust has shed some poundage to cope with the up-tempo game they're now playing under new coach Memi Becirovic.
Smart Gilas, meanwhile, has kept its Jones Cup team intact, inserting only Jarred Dillinger to replace Sol Mercado.
Kelly Williams, Jayson Castro and Ryan Reyes are out on account of injuries while Japeth Aguilar is also out, showcasing his talents to various scouts in the US.