The new pathway through Asia to the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup was made clear with the draw of all pools for World Cup qualifying by FIBA overnight New Zealand time, with the Tall Blacks set to face Hong Kong, South Korea and China in Pool A in the first phase of qualifying.
Previously New Zealand has had to emerge out of Oceania if they were to qualify for FIBA World Cup and Olympic Games tournaments, but a change in that pathway now has Oceania included in Asia, with New Zealand and Australia included in the draw made overnight in China.
FIBA's new qualification process for World Cups and Olympics tips-off in November in the first of six international windows - very similar to the same process utilized by FIFA in World Cup football qualifying. The other windows are scheduled for February, June, August and November in 2018, and February in 2019. Teams will play two games in each window - but not necessarily a home and away.
New Zealand will host South Korea on November 23, backed up just three days later by a game in Hong Kong on November 26. In 2018, they will travel to China on February 23 and South Korea on February 26, then close out the first round of qualifying by hosting Hong Kong on June 28 and China on July 1. The Tall Blacks will also be chasing a medal in the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in April in a busy calendar year for the team.
Head Coach Paul Henare is excited at news of the draw, with the format and games becoming very real now the initial opponents are identified.
"The first thing to note is we have been drawn in a very good group, China has been the mainstay and powerhouse in Asia for a long time now that is going to be a good battle against a really tough team. South Korea, we had a five-game series with them in our 2014 build-up and outside of our first game when we got after them in Wellington, the series was a cracker and we had some good games against them. Hong Kong are an unknown quality but they have a good pro league and have the population and budget to assemble a competitive team for sure.
"Every game is huge, taking as many points as you can to the second stage will help, but this is totally new for everybody. For us and our programme and our team we are focused on each game in each window and making sure we have the best group possible for each game."
Henare is also excited about the challenges facing his team, with the international windows not always occurring at optimum times to bring players back from Europe and the USA opening the door for others to step up.
"That will be interesting, the ones who definitely wont be available will be anyone in the NBA when FIBA windows clash with that season. NBA and the USA college games dont sit under the FIBA rules where they have to break in those windows, so they are unlikely to be available. But for the likes of Isaac Fotu and others in Europe I imagine they will have to break (as will the Australian NBL) to allow European players to play for their teams so I am hopeful that the likes of Isaac and any others in Europe will be available to us and enable us to have our best possible team.
"I have sat down with a couple of the key players in the Tall Blacks group and have others to catch up with in the weeks ahead. But we must have an eye on what the future looks like and work backwards from the Tokyo Olympics. To have a chance of getting there we must go to the 2019 FIBA World Cup so for me the start of this year and the Asia Cup is about getting to the Olympics in 2020, and to do that we need the best group of players coming together as often as possible."
Henare is excited at the prospect of playing at home in truly competitive games.
"Already we have locked in a game in November playing at home and then we will come together again at the end of June and early July. While it will be great to sell out all games, the last one is really exciting against China. I cant recall the last time we hosted a full-strength China team, I can already imagine a sold out Spark Arena with the fans maybe split down the middle, what a night that promises to be."
The top three teams from each pool will progress to the next round of qualifying, taking their points tally with them. Should they progress, the Tall Blacks will then play a further three countries home and away, with the top three teams plus the best fourth place team from the two pools qualifying for the World Cup.
Asia will ultimately qualify seven teams - in addition to host nation China - for the World Cup, to be contested by an expanded 32 teams from August 31-September 15, 2019 in eight Chinese cities.
Both New Zealand and Australia will also contest the 2017 Asia Cup Tournament, in Lebanon in August.
Venues and specific details for the home games in Asian World Cup qualifying are yet to be confirmed by Basketball New Zealand, but CEO Iain Potter is excited about the prospect of genuine, competitive home games for fans to enjoy.
"We are entering into an exciting new era with the new FIBA World Cup qualifying process, one that brings with it plenty of financial and logistical challenges. But what it does guarantee is the chance to see the Tall Blacks play at home on a regular basis in do or die games with a genuine edge.
"Fans have been largely starved of international games of this nature, the next few years is about to get very busy and exciting for the game, our players and stakeholders, and for those who love to support our Tall Blacks."