FIBA Asia Cup

Will the ‘Korean curse’ haunt the all-cadet Gilas?

Ariel Ian Clarito
Will the ‘Korean curse’ haunt the all-cadet Gilas?

THREAT. Korea fields another fast-paced and imposing squad.


South Korea brings to the Clark bubble a virtually new-look team, but one that will not lack for experience

Gilas Pilipinas will field an all-cadet crew in the the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, where they’ll be playing three games in five days.

The young Nationals will have to contend with South Korea twice on June 16 and 20, and Indonesia once on June 18 in the final window of the qualifiers. (SCHEDULE: Gilas Pilipinas at FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers)

As the unbeaten Philippines braces for tougher battles, will the “Korean curse” haunt this young Gilas squad?

South Korea – which has dealt the Philippines many heartbreaks in international basketball – has only played two games in the qualifiers after skipping the Bahrain window last November due to safety concerns. 

Like the Philippines (3-0), the South Koreans are undefeated in Group A. (READ: Options abound for Gilas Pilipinas in FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers)

Korea won its first away game on February 20, 2020 by 33 points over Indonesia, and escaped an unexpected close game at home versus Thailand, 93-86.

Newly appointed head coach Cho Sang Hyun will be bringing to the Clark bubble practically a new team for Korea but one that will not lack for experience. 

There are two big names, though, conspicuously missing from the Korean squad: Kim Jong-kyu and Heo Hoon.  

A big hole will be caused by the absence of Kim Jong-kyu, their 6-foot-9 center who played in Manila in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships and is currently the highest paid local player in the Korean Basketball League (KBL). 

Point guard Heo Hoon, the former KBL MVP who led the league this season in assists with 7.5 per game, is also not lined up for the qualifiers after seeing action in the first window. Heo is the son of legendary Korean gunner Hur Jae.

Only six players who saw action in the first window last year are coming back. The returnees are led by 6-foot-6 Lee Seoung-hyun, widely considered the best power forward in Korea. 

The 6-foot-2 forward Seonghyen Jeon, the second-leading scorer for the team last year who converted seven triples in two games, will torment defenders in the qualifiers with his sharpshooting. Jeon is also the leading three-point shooter this past season in the KBL as he connected on 2.6 triples per game.

Jeon’s backcourt partner will be another deadshot from outside in 6-foot guard Kim Nakhyeon who averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 assists in their victories over Indonesia and Thailand. 

The 6-foot-8 Kang Sangjae, part of the national team to the 2019 FIBA World Cup, will banner the Korean frontline along with two young hardworking bigs who were the second- and third-best rebounding locals in the KBL – the 6-foot-6 Hongseok Yang and the 6-foot-7 Song Kyo-Chang.

Although there will be six new faces in the Korean squad, three of them are actually veterans of the national team. These are 6-foot-6 naturalized player Ricardo Ratliffe who goes by the Korean name Ra Guna, and two of the deadliest shooters of the KBL, Lee Jyeong-hyeon and Lee Dae-sung, both 6-foot-3 wingmen. 

All three are over 31 years old and will provide stability and leadership to the squad. They all saw action for the Korean team in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. 

Three newcomers will be making their debut for the senior squad as Korea also looks to use the qualifiers to invest in the future of its national team. 

The 6-foot-1 guard Byeon Junhyeong will further bolster Korean’s depth in the shooting department. 

Lee Hyun-jung, a versatile 6-foot-7 guard-forward who is only the second Korean to play US NCAA Division 1 basketball, has received his first senior call-up. The 20-year-old suited up the past two seasons for the Davidson Wildcats in the Atlantic 10 Conference where he earned All-Rookie honors in his freshman year. 

The 6-foot-8 center Yeo Jun Seok, the MVP of the Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Asia camp in 2019 and a participant in the 2020 BWB Global Camp at the NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago, will be the youngest in the Korean lineup. He turned 19 years old just last March. 

This Korean squad will not lack for size as they will parade seven players who stand 6-foot-6 and above. Gilas Pilipinas may have the height to match up in the frontline battle, but the Korean’s heft will be a major concern. 

The young Gilas bigs will soon discover that Ra Guna, Lee Seoung-hyun, Kang Sangjae, and Hongseok Yang will be hard to push out of the shaded area.

Expect the Koreans to play their typical game – fast-paced which is characterized by quick ball and player movement, a lot of screens and back picks, and prolific outside shooting. The Korean lineup also has five players aged 25 and below, so playing in transition all game long will not be an issue. 

The young Gilas squad will be in the fight of their lives as they face a longtime rival that the Philippines has always had problems defeating. They will need to stay disciplined and focused from the opening tip-off and be prepared to keep pace with the Koreans who are known to play in perpetual motion. –