Facing the biggest challenge of their careers, coach Chot Reyes and his Gilas Pilipinas crew will embark on a nerve-wracking mission in the 27th Fiba Asia Championship no Philippine team had completed in the last 35 years.
Their objective: Earn a ticket to the 2014 Fiba World Cup by finishing third or better in the Asian championship set to unfold today at Mall of Asia Arena.
Gilas, the men’s national basketball team of mostly PBA stars, will begin the arduous task of getting to the worlds against Saudi Arabia at 8:30 tonight with high expectations of opening its campaign on a triumphant note.
The Nationals take a litmus test tomorrow against West Asian force Jordan, runner-up in the 2011 continental meet in Wuhan, China, before wrapping up their Group A assignment opposite hot-shooting Chinese Taipei on Saturday.
“As I’ve said, we don’t want to overlook Saudi but obviously, we’re really preparing hard against Jordan and Taipei,” said Reyes, on his second coaching stint in the tournament after mentoring a PBA-backed squad in 2007 in Tokushima, Japan.
Loaded with shooters and speedy guards, Gilas will lean on point guards Jimmy Alapag, LA Tenorio and Jayson Castro to create scoring opportunities for snipers Jeffrei Chan, Gary David, Larry Fonacier and Gabe Norwood.
Whenever he’s open, power forward Ranidel De Ocampo occasionally takes the three and beefs up the frontline starring naturalized center Marcus Douthit, Japeth Aguilar, June Mar Fajardo and defensive ace Marc Pingris.
“We put a team predicated on quickness and outside shooting. The difference now is Marcus, whom we didn’t have in 2007,” said Reyes.
Except for their Serbian coach, Nenad Kradzic, the Saudis don’t have big names in their roster and has an average ceiling of just a shade over 6-foot-1.
Mohammed Almarwani, the tallest Saudi at 6-foot-6, will be dwarfed by the 6-10 Douthit and 6-foot-9s Aguilar and Fajardo in the paint.
The Philippines was a no-show in the world championship for over three decades or since Manila hosted the event in 1978.
Coached by Nic Jorge and led by Alex Clarino, Joy Carpio, Steve Watson and Padim Israel, the Filipinos placed eighth out of 14 teams, losing all their seven games in the tourney won by Yugoslavia over the then Soviet Union squad.
“We don’t have the height (against teams like China, Iran and Jordan) and that’s our deficiency from way back. No. 2, we don’t have the time together and those are the things we have to contend with,” said Reyes.
“To be very honest, I think we have the skills and the desire to compete. We also have the crowd support and I hope these three factors will help us,” added Reyes, strongly believing that Gilas could end up in the medal round.
Defending champion China and Iran, which won in 2007 and 2009, are heavily favored to meet in the finals of the 15-nation tournament where the top three performers punch tickets to the world championship next year in Spain.
The country won this tournament in Manila in 1973 and repeated the trick in 1985 in Malaysia with a team bannered by naturalized Americans Chip Engelland, Dennis Still and Jeff Moore.
But the three flew home in the wake of the 1986 Edsa Revolution and the national team abandoned its world stint in Madrid on the same year.
Gilas capped its two-month preparation yesterday with a light workout with Reyes and the coaching staff of Norman Black, Jong Uichico and Ryan Gregorio stressing on focus and mental toughness as vital ingredients to victory.
“It’s a strong field out there, but everybody knows what we’ve gone through. This team will come fighting tooth and nail, and nobody’s going to try harder than your team,” said Reyes.
Bracketed in Group A, the Philippines should finish in the top three of the first round then tackle Group B qualifiers Qatar, Japan and Hong Kong in the second round.
China, Iran, South Korea and Malaysia make up Group C while Kazakhstan, Bahrain, India and Thailand compose Group D.
The top four teams from the A-B group will then advance to the knockout quarterfinals along with their four counterparts from the C-D bracket.