FIBA Olympic qualifiers: A closer look at Gilas foes Latvia and Georgia

Ariel Ian Clarito

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FIBA Olympic qualifiers: A closer look at Gilas foes Latvia and Georgia

MAIN MEN. Latvia’s point guard Arturs Zagars (left) and Georgia’s center Goga Bitadze in action during the 2023 FIBA World Cup.


Gilas Pilipinas will likely sail rough waters in Riga as its European foes in the FIBA Olympic qualifiers boast both size and athleticism

MANILA, Philippines – Gilas Pilipinas could not have asked for a bigger challenge for the opening game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Riga, Latvia when it takes on the host team on Wednesday, July 3 (Thursday, July 4, 12 am, Manila time). 

There are a number of reasons, all of which have merit, why Latvia is the oddsmakers’ favorite to grab the lone Olympic ticket up for grabs in Riga.

One of them is the man behind the bench whom Tim Cone will have to outwit, outthink, and outcoach – Italian tactician Luca Banchi.

Banchi was handed the coaching reins of Latvia in 2021 and led a country that had never previously qualified to the FIBA World Cup to a fifth-place finish in Manila last year. He was named the tournament’s Best Coach.

Under Banchi – who is also the head coach of Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna, the oldest ballclub in Italy – Latvia has over 20 wins and just three losses. 

The wins came even without star Kristaps Porzingis, the NBA champion from the Boston Celtics who will also be out of the Olympic qualifiers after undergoing a season-ending surgery. 

But familiarity and cohesion will not be an issue for the Latvian pool as the Italian tactician recalled all the 12 players who were with him in Manila. 

This is a sensible move given how Latvia was one of the most impressive teams in the World Cup. 

Latvia routed Gilas rival Lebanon, 109-70, and registered victories against perennial contenders France, Spain, and Brazil. The only team to beat Latvia prior to the knockout stage was Canada, which finished third in the competition. 

In the quarterfinals, Latvia dropped a heartbreaker to eventual champion Germany, 81-79, to barely miss the final four. The Latvians regrouped by winning their last two games against Italy, 87-82, and Lithuania, 98-63. 

Point guard Arturs Zagars, who set the World Cup record for assists when he dished out 17 versus Lithuania, was named to the tournament All-Second Team. He normed 12.4 points and 7.4 dimes in eight games. 

Zagars, however, is coming off a lateral ligament injury which sidelined him for close to half a year. 

Although Latvia will definitely need Zagars to regain his old form, the good news for their fans who are expected to pack the 11,200 seating capacity of the Arena Riga is that Banchi has built a team that can generate contributions from almost everyone. 

Andrejs Gražuli, a 6-foot-8 power forward who plays in the Italian league for Aquila Basket Trento, will be among the focal offensive sources for Latvia after leading the squad in points during the World Cup with 14.4 per game. 

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Two others also averaged in double figures for Latvia during the event – 6-foot-10 center/forward Rolands Šmits of the Anadolu Efes in the Turkish League, and eight-year NBA veteran Davis Bertans of the Charlotte Hornets.

The Kurucs brothers, Rodions and Arturs, who both helped UCAM Murcia finish runner-up in the Spanish Liga ACB this past season, will also spell double trouble for Latvia’s opponents. 

The older Rodions, a 6-foot-8 small forward, previously played in the NBA for the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, and Milwaukee Bucks. 

Versatile 6-foot-4 guard Arturs shot 48.5% from rainbow country during the World Cup, sinking an average of two threes per game. 

Banchi will not only have size, but he will also have superb backcourt men to choose from when he trims his roster down to the final 12.

Kristers Zoriks provided reliable off-the-bench production for Latvia in their World Cup campaign by putting up 8 points and 3.3 assists. Currently a member of Socar Spor in the Turkish League, the 6-foot-4 Zoriks played four years of US NCAA Division 1 basketball for St. Mary’s College. 

Aigars Šķēle, who has been with the national team since 2016, logged solid minutes in last year’s World Cup, while two possible returnees who missed the World Cup could also be impact players for Latvia. 

Prolific shooting guard Rihards Lomažs, who plays for Banchi in the Italian league, was Latvia’s leading scorer with 15.6 points during the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifiers. 

Another Italian league mainstay, 34-year-old Jānis Strēlnieks, could be called upon to render national team duties anew.

Georgia on Gilas’ mind

Less than 24 hours after the Latvia game, Gilas Pilipinas will tussle with another European squad, Georgia, on Thursday, July 4, 8:30 pm, Manila time. 

Georgia is handled by Serbia’s Aleksandar Džikic, a multi-titled coach who has won club titles in top-tier leagues in Montenegro, Slovenia, and Israel.

Džikic is only the second European to be hired as deputy in the NBA as he was part of the coaching staff of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2005-2007.

In the first round of the 2023 FIBA World Cup held in Okinawa, Japan, Georgia sandwiched a loss to Luka Doncic and Slovenia with victories over Cape Verde, 85-60, and Venezuela, 70-59, to advance to the second round. 

Georgia wound up 16th overall among 32 teams in the World Cup after being eliminated in the second round where they were dealt defeats by Germany and Australia. 

Džikić has at his disposal a phalanx of immovable but very skilled and agile bigs who could overwhelm an undersized team like Gilas Pilipinas.

Georgia will parade what arguably is the most lethal and imposing frontline in the Riga qualifiers composed of 6-foot-11 center Goga Bitadze of the Orlando Magic, 6-foot-9 power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili of the San Antonio Spurs, 6-foot-9 power forward Toko Shengelia of Virtus Pallacanestro Bologna, and 7-foot-1 center Giorgi Shermadini of Tenerife in the Spanish Liga ACB. 

All four come with elite pedigree. 

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Bitadze played 62 games this past season with Orlando in the NBA. He led Georgia in scoring and rebounding during the World Cup with averages of 13.6 points and 7.8 boards. 

He was ably supported by Mamukelashvili, who played four years for Seton Hall in the US NCAA before joining the NBA in 2021.  

In the World Cup, Mamukelashvili scored 12.8 points per game, highlighted by his 21 points in the loss to Slovenia. 

Italian Supercup MVP Shengelia, who has played for the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls, averaged 12.4 points, including a 25-point explosion against Venezuela. 

The 35-year-old Shermadini, meanwhile, will render relief minutes at the slot for Bitadze. The Spanish league veteran dropped 16 points in their last game in the World Cup versus Australia and finished the tournament with averages of 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds.

Georgia’s backcourt, though not as potent as its frontline, is still a solid crew. It will be led by 6-foot-4 guard Joe Thomasson, who replaced Thad McFadden as Georgia’s naturalized player. 

Thomasson has played as an import in pro leagues in Spain, Russia, Israel, Poland, and Romania. He will share duties with playmaker Rati Andronikashvili of Casademont Zaragoza in the Spanish Liga ACB and Duda Sanadze of Atomerőmű SE in the Hungarian League. 

Andronikashvili and Sanadze were key components of the Georgian rotation in the World Cup. Both are products of the US NCAA Division 1. 

Andronikashvili played one season for Creighton, the same school that Kobe Paras was part of, while Sanadze suited up for four years for the University of San Diego. 

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Gilas Pilipinas will need to finish in the top two of Group A to advance to the crossover semifinals against the top two of Group B, which has world No. 12 Brazil, No. 17 Montenegro, and No. 68 Cameroon. 

Only the winner of the Riga qualifiers will make it to the Paris Olympics. 

Gilas Pilipinas will likely sail rough waters against the European teams, which have both the size and the athleticism. 

Cone will need from his team a disciplined, patient effort that leaves very little room for errors to pull off a surprise or two. 

But if there is anything that Cone has shown since he took over as the national team coach, it is his ability to conjure some magic and surprises. –

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