Assessing Gilas Pilipinas’ chances at FIBA World Cup

Bert A. Ramirez

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Columnist Bert Ramirez analyzes Gilas Pilipinas' chances of making it to the FIBA World Cup knockout stages in their first trip to the tournament in 36 years

PILIPINAS VS THE WORLD. Jimmy Alapag played a key role in Gilas securing a spot in the FIBA World Cup. Can the squad pull off similar heroics again? Photo by FIBA Asia/Nuki Sabio.

The Gilas Pilipinas team, the silver medalists of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, has not announced the final-12 roster that it will use in the FIBA World Championship that starts less than two weeks from now in Spain. Except for the addition of Jimmy Alapag who has given up his slot in the Asian Games that follows the Worlds, it will likely go with the same 12 it earlier announced for the Asiad in Incheon, South Korea.

This means that three of the four players in the Gilas training pool – Marcus Douthit, Beau Belga and Jay Washington – will stay on the sidelines while one of the three additions to the Gilas roster that earned one of three Asian slots to this year’s Spanish joust – Andray Blatche, Paul Lee (Dalistan) and Jared Dillinger – will have to be dropped and then activated for the Incheon Games.

“It’s actually something I talked to coach Chot (Reyes) about even before training started for the World Cup,” Alapag explained of his relinquishment of his slot on the Asiad team. “I told him no matter what happens with the final lineup for Spain, I feel it’s best that it will be my last international tournament.”

As the deadline for submission of lineups for the Asian Games was set last Wednesday, August 13, Reyes had to name his final lineup for the quadrennial games even before he could do so for the FIBA World Cup that will come ahead of the Asiad. And he added Blatche, a naturalized NBA veteran, Lee and Dillinger to the original roster that won the silver medal in last year’s FIBA Asia Championship, minus Douthit who would be replaced by the Brooklyn free agent as the FIBA allows only one naturalized citizen in any country’s lineup.

Even before the Filipino team could leave for its training camp in Miami, a withdrawal had already hit the squad. Veteran Larry Fonacier was forced to give up his slot to allow nagging foot and back injuries to heal. While Lee, whose tough play in the FIBA Asia Cup undoubtedly played a part in his selection to the Asian Games team, can very well take over Fonacier’s World Cup slot with his outside shooting, physical play and quickness, Reyes has made it clear he won’t make a roster decision based on the void left by Fonacier but on the basis of the bigger picture. This means Lee could still find himself outside looking in when the World Cup lineup is finally submitted most likely this week.

This is because Reyes intends to make defense the Filipinos’ priority when the World Cup games come, aware that Gilas’ size disadvantage could pose a big problem if the team can’t defend properly against bigger opponents. This is why the team’s coaching staff had made defense a point of emphasis throughout the Filipinos’ Miami camp. “Madami kaming natutunan, lalo na sa defense,” gunner Jeff Chan admitted, “and everyday, tina-try naming ma-perfect ‘yun, lalo na ‘yung rotation.”

“We’re really focusing on our defense and schemes that fit the strengths of our team,” Gabe Norwood, one of the team’s best defenders, said.

The emphasis on defense could affect Lee when the final cut is made by Reyes for the World Cup lineup of Gilas Pilipinas, assuming he allows Alapag a graceful exit by including him on the roster for the tournament. And this also assumes he’d rather go with Dillinger, one of the team’s bulwarks on defense who was added to the pool earlier this year precisely because of his defensive skills.

But it’s not as if Alapag has not earned it either. He played a big role in the country’s making it back to the World Cup of basketball for the first time since 1978 by placing second to Iran in last year’s FIBA Asia Championship that the Philippines hosted.

Who could forget Alapag’s heroics in the semifinals against South Korea, among which was the cold-blooded three-point bomb that he hit in the closing minute of the Philippines’ epic 86-79 win, which in effect ended the Korean curse that had jinxed the Filipinos for decades? The Koreans had not lost to the Filipinos since 1986, a stretch that spanned 27 long years and 12 straight games and which, as if by design, coincided with the country’s fall from grace at the top or near the top of Asian basketball.

Since beating the Koreans 76-72 in winning the then-Asian Basketball Confederation title with the Northern Cement squad that first used naturalized players to reinforce natural-born Filipinos in 1985, the Philippines would go on a long drought against the nation that produced the legendary Shin Dong-pa and such stars as Kim In-kun and Lee Chung-hee. It lost to the Koreans 103-102 in the 1986 Asian Games on a heartbreaking last-second jumper that negated a great performance throughout the tournament by an all-Filipino squad that included Allan Caidic, Samboy Lim, Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codiñera and Hector Calma. It also dropped 96-83 and 80-75 decisions in 1991 and 1993, both in the ABC tournament, bowed 86-79 in the 1994 Asian Games ironically on a score that matched its victory over its nemesis last year, and went down 98-76 in the 1995 ABC tournament. It then lost three more contests to the Koreans, 103-83 in the 1998 Asiad, 98-63 in the 1999 ABC tournament, and 69-68 in the 2002 Asian Games in a game that the Filipinos led before another last-second three pointer beat them. The Koreans would go on to win the title against China that year.

Naturalized NBA veteran Andray Blatche gives Gilas Pilipinas the size it badly needs. Photo by Francis R. Malasig/EPA

Even with Serbian coach Rajko Toroman, who coached Iran to its first FIBA Asia championship in 2007, then calling the shots for the Philippines,the Korean hex continued in the 2009 FIBA Asian Championship, with the Koreans beating the Filipinos twice in that tournament 69-56 and 82-80, and then extending their spell over them with a 74-66 win in the 2010 Asiad and a 70-68 squeaker in the 2011 FIBA Asia meet.

This is why Gilas’ victory over the Koreans in last year’s FIBA Asia Championship had to be considered a landmark accomplishment, and Alapag could just be handed the last World Cup slot by Reyes on the strength of his prominent role in the country’s return to the ranks of Asia’s elite and a well-earned place on the global stage.

“Knowing the World Cup will be my last tournament, I’ve really just tried to embrace this last stint to the fullest,” said Alapag, who turns 37 this coming December. “All the players and coaches work so hard to make everyone at home and all the kababayans around the world proud of their national team. It’s just special to be part of it all.”

If Alapag is in, the Gilas Pilipinas roster for the World Cup would look like this (position, height and weight in parentheses):

Japeth Aguilar (PF-C, 6-9, 225), Jimmy Alapag (PG, 5-8, 160), Andray Blatche (C-PF, 6-11, 260), Jeff Chan (SG, 6-3, 185), Gary David (SG-SF, 6-2, 180), Ranidel de Ocampo (F, 6-6, 230), Jared Dillinger (SG, 6-5, 220), June Mar Fajardo (C, 6-11, 268), Gabe Norwood (SG-SF, 6-6¼, 210), Marc Pingris (PF, 6-6, 215), L.A. Tenorio (PG, 5-7, 190), Jayson Castro (William) (PG, 5-11, 185).

There’s no doubt, however, that it will be an uphill climb for Gilas Pilipinas in the Spanish games, no matter who makes the final lineup. The Filipinos are bracketed with Argentina, Croatia, Greece, Puerto Rico and Senegal in Group B, which will play its preliminary games in Sevilla, Spain.

Argentina is ranked No. 3 in the world by the FIBA, Greece is ranked No. 5, Croatia 16th, Puerto Rico 17th and Senegal is the only groupmate that’s ranked lower than the Philippines’ No. 34 at 41st. While it may not be as strong as Group D, where there are two teams that are ranked first in their respective zones (Australia and Angola), or even Group A, where European Zone No. 1 Spain is bracketed, there’s practically no team in the group that can give Gilas a break. 

The group that Reyes wished the Filipinos were bracketed in – Group C – boasts of the US and Turkey but would conceivably have three weaker teams – the Mike Fratello-coached squad of Ukraine (although it blasted a Blatche-less Gilas team in a tuneup game today by 50 points), Finland and the Dominican Republic – whom Gilas would have had a better chance of upending.  

At this point, Reyes and his troops know what their goal is in Spain. The godfather of Philippine basketball, Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas president Manny Pangilinan, has given them a clear marching order: Make it to the 16-team knockout stage of the tournament, and that can only happen if Gilas makes it to the top four in its bracket.

That means beating at least two of its groupmates. Off hand, anyone who knows his basketball would concede that the Filipinos practically stand no chance of beating Argentina, Croatia or Greece. The three teams have bonafide NBA campaigners on their rosters, and this experience plus their size advantage can only make the odds against Gilas daunting indeed.

Argentina, which is bracketed with the Philippines, will miss the services of Manu Ginobili but still has NBA vets like Luis Scola (pictured). Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Even Puerto Rico has its own share of NBA veterans and only a relative lack of a top-notch big man with Daniel Santiago already 38 years old gives the Filipinos an outside chance of scoring an upset against the Puerto Ricans. That’s the opposite situation for Senegal, which boasts of one of the more promising big men in the NBA with Gorgui Dieng, a rookie with Minnesota last year, patrolling the lanes for the African team. It’s the lack of top-caliber wingmen that could pose a problem for the Senegalese, something that the Filipinos have to take advantage of if they want to at least have a shot at advancing to the next phase.

But as far as the first three aforementioned teams are concerned, reality bites the country’s standard-bearers. 

The Argentines, even without Manu Ginobili who is healing a stress fracture in the right leg that he sustained in the NBA finals and Carlos Delfino who is also recovering from foot surgery, are still a potent group with experience, talent and size. The American Zone’s No. 2 team still has NBA veterans Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Andres Nocioni and Walter Herrmann, and though it’s nowhere near the level of the team that won the gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics, it’s expected to contend for one of the medals.

Greece, meanwhile, has the up-and-coming Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced YAWN-nie Ah-DAY-tow-KUN-bo), a 6-foot-11 wunderkind who’s still growing and could turn into a potentially devastating perimeter player with his talent and size. Besides the kid with the hard-to-pronounce name, the Greeks also have such veterans as 6-9 bruiser Georgios Printezis, seven-foot, 275-pound center Giannis Bourousis, Kostas Papanikolaou and Nick Calathes of Memphis.

Croatia, on the other hand, may have its best group of players yet since the glory days of Drazen Petrovic, Tony Kukoc and Dino Radja. The Croats boast of such NBA-caliber talents as 7-2, 265-pound center Ante Tomic, a second-round draft pick by Utah in 2008 and an All-Euroleague First Team selection the past two years, 6-10 forward Dario Saric, the reigning Adriatic League MVP who was this year’s No. 12 pick in the NBA draft acquired by Philadelphia, hotshooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, recent Indiana Pacers signee Damjan Rudez, a 6-8 forward, and one-time Boston Celtics point guard (2010) Oliver Lafayette.

For Gilas to achieve its goal of advancing to the knockout stage, the Filipinos will not only have to play excellent team defense but must also be able to hit their outside shots consistently given their handicap in size. Blatche can’t do it alone and both Aguilar and Fajardo, the PBA’s MVP this season, are still too raw to mix it up inside and find ways to score from in close against the giants.

In the Filipinos’ recent 75-68 loss to France in a pocket tournament in Antibes, France that they used as part of their buildup for the Worlds, Gilas provided a blueprint for success against strong teams in international play. The Filipinos hit 12 of 29 three-pointers in this game to lead for much of the second half. They only lost the close contest when they missed some makeable shots and allowed the French, who were led by Portland’s starting forward Nicolas Batum with 16 points, to go on a 20-8 spurt in the end.

In an earlier 89-58 victory against a rag-tag team of Asociacion de Clubs de Baloncesto (ACB) players, the Filipinos were even hotter, going 13-of-26 from beyond the arc while limiting the Spanish pros to 4-of-23 shooting from that distance. “The thing I like most was the ball movement, the selflessness and the willingness to share the basketball,” Reyes said. 

Gilas, however, was perceived to take a step back, or even two steps back, when it was clobbered after that gallant stand against France in its last two games in the Antibes Basketball Tournament, taking it to the chin from Australia 97-75 and being blown out by a supposedly manageable Ukrainian team in a merciless 114-64 pounding. True, the Filipinos were without Blatche in the match against the Ukrainians to rest an ankle he sprained against France and Lee also missed the game because of a hip injury, but Gilas simply looked as if it was not into the game even as the bigger Eastern Europeans held a shooting clinic by hitting 19 three-pointers. If there was anyone who should have shot that way, it was the smaller Filipinos, but ironically, there was a complete reversal of roles in this game, accounting for that monstrosity of a defeat.

Were the Filipinos tired in playing their third game in as many nights? Are they burned out from all the preparations that they’ve made for the Spanish conclave? Maybe, but this would be an alarming development if it’s true as the rest of the World Cup participants are going through the same rigors of training. Five more tuneup games are scheduled for the Filipinos before they plunge into real action against Croatia to open their World Cup bid on August 30: against Basque club Euskadi on August 19, African champion Angola on August 20, Mexico on August 23, the Dominican Republic on August 24, and Egypt on August 25.

By that time, we’ll have a better idea of whether Gilas Pilipinas is indeed ready for its first foray into the world stage in 36 years.

“We needed that,” Reyes tweeted after that 50-point humiliation his men suffered against Ukraine. If that is, indeed, a wakeup call, the Filipinos would have been served well by that jolt. Hopefully, it came just at the right time for Gilas to show its true worth and eventually make all Filipinos proud. This is, after all, an opportunity we all waited for for almost four decades, and it’s just fitting and proper that we make it well worth the wait.

SHORTSHOTS: Batang Gilas Pilipinas avoided the cellar when it blasted host United Arab Emirates 115-51 in the FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Dubai to finish 15th in the 16-team field. The Under-17 Filipinos, who earned a ticket to the competition by winning the silver medal in the FIBA Under-16 Asia Championship last year, won going away after outscoring the Arabs 40-7 in the third quarter. The young Filipinos, the smallest team in the tournament, were led by Paul Desiderio with 25 points and finished with a record of one victory against six defeats… The US Under-17 team won the FIBA Under-17 World Championship, its third consecutive, when the young Americans beat Australia in the finals 99-92 as tournament MVP Malik Newman collected 21 points and 11 rebounds. Newman, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound combo guard from Jackson, Mississippi who averaged a team-high 14.9 points in the tournament, and teammate Diamond Stone, a 6-10 center from Milwaukee who averaged 13.1 points and a team-high 9.9 rebounds, made it to this year’s All-Tournament Team.  The US, unbeaten in seven games in the tournament and 23-0 since the tournament began in 2010, earned a finals ticket after whipping Serbia 89-68 while the Australians (5-2) advanced to the title game by beating Spain 80-74 in a pair of semifinal contests. Serbia (6-1) placed third after edging the 3-4 Spaniards 62-59 in the bronze-medal game… The Court of Appeal has denied Donald Sterling’s attempt to block the sale of the LA Clippers to Steve Ballmer through a writ of supersedeas and request for an immediate stay filed by the controversial owner, thus making the sale of the franchise for a record $2 billion legal and binding. Sterling, whose estranged wife Shelly made the sale on behalf of the Sterling Family Trust, has also filed a case in federal court against the NBA, which his lawyers hoped would eventually vindicate their client. – 

Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the ’80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008.  He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA’s International Basketball, and currently writes a sports column for QC Metro Manila Life and, until this summer, a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk.  A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.

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