PBA: Cariaso's focus remains with San Mig for now

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Basketball Association's (PBA) Barangay Ginebra San Miguel will be given another chance to turn over a new leaf as they aim to arrest a 6-year title drought with the appointment of Jeffrey Cariaso as new head coach.

But he won't be turning his attention to a reeling Ginebra just yet.

Cariaso, 41, is an assistant coach for the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers, who is still in the thick of its semifinals series against the Air21 Express in the 2014 PBA Commissioner's Cup.

"I'm here [with San Mig] until we're done," Cariaso said firmly. "I'll be here."

The former Alaska guard and an understudy to multi-titled coach Tim Cone had a timely taste of what it was like to man the sidelines in San Mig's Tuesday night Game 1 loss to Air21.

Cariaso took over for Cone who got ejected with 1:17 minutes left in the game after incurring two technical fouls. 

San Mig rallied from 93-87 and inched to within 100-103 with 3.9 ticks left as import James Mays scored the Mixers' final 13 points.

That short 1 minute and 17 seconds of experience was like a test run for Cariaso and it proved to be valuable for him in preparation for the new head coaching job.

"It felt like it a little bit with recent events. Nagkataon na (It just so happened) you get an opportunity," Cariaso said.

"Yeah, I look at it like that [as an internship]. It was a good experience, good test a little bit. Something to look forward to."

Interestingly, Cariaso also coached a scrimmage between Ginebra and San Mig Coffee prior to the start of the Commissioner's Cup, with Cone and key San Mig players taking a breather from the Philippine Cup at the time. San Mig lost that tune-up game to Ginebra.

Product of San Mig's success

Before the rumors of Cariaso's new head coaching job were confirmed, Cone already expressed his support for his assistant coach.

Seeing Cariaso fly from under his wing, according to Cone, is a reflection of the team's success.

"I'm extremely happy for Jeff. This is what you do as head coaches, you try and groom your assistants to be head coaches," remarked the 16-time champion coach.

"And every time that happens, it's a great reflection on what you do and what the organization does. From a San Mig Coffee point of view we're really happy. It's a reflection on us and our success that he's getting an opportunity."

Though Cone did admit that he wasn't too keen on losing his "chemistry guy" in the middle of the playoffs.

"He is very, very key to what we do. He's our chemistry guy. He builds our chemistry," Cone described what Cariaso does for San Mig and what type of coach he could be.

"If I have to say one single guy that's responsible for the chemistry we have on our team, it's Jeffrey. So when we lose him, there's going to be a void. That's for sure."

But when it is time for Cariaso to move on and handle a new team, Cone said he'll still be happy for his assistant, like he is with others before Cariaso such as Luigi Trillo. And as happy as he is for Cariaso, he's even happier to be going up against him in the future.

"I'll cheer him from the sidelines but, basically, now we're rivals."

San Mig Coffee distracted?

After leading for most of Game 1 of the semis, the Mixers caved in the face of Air21's stingy defense in the fourth period. San Mig Coffee's own defense couldn't contain the Express' sheer desire to score, allowing them 37 points. 

Since the 103-100 loss came on the same day news broke that Cariaso would be parting with the Mixers, and with rumors swirling about it already in the last week, it's not improbable that San Mig may be getting distracted.

Cariaso admitted the team hasn't addressed him leaving yet.

"I hope not. The last couple of days or since it started coming out, we've never talked about it. We've never discussed it as a team.

"But obviously they read it on Twitter, so they hear it. So maybe it wasn't our normal week of preparation. But I think there's more reasons beyond that that we can fix."

With the PBA Governors' Cup only weeks away, Ginebra is set to resume practice to try and bounce back from their lackluster Commissioner's Cup performance

Cariaso admitted "that's gonna be kind of tricky at practice" but says he'll take it one at a time. 

"Right now I'm here at San Mig, we're gonna finish this conference, we're gunning for a third straight championship. Then I'll focus on my next job."

Cariaso played for 15 seasons in the PBA before retiring in 2010. He was drafted 6th overall in 1995 by the Alaska Milkmen and became the Rookie of the Year for that season. He was also a vital part of the 1996 Grand Slam team of Alaska. 

Cariaso played for Alaska, the Mobiline Phone Pals (now Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters), the Tanduay Rhum Masters, and the Coca-Cola Tigers.

His number 22 jersey was retired by the Alaska Aces and Coca-Cola. – Rappler.com