Gilas begins countdown to FIBA Asia after Jones Cup

MANILA, Philippines - The basketball season is truly upon us. Print and broadcast carry the drama of the UAAP and the NCAA cage wars, and sad to say, the national team fighting its heart out at the William Jones Cup and the qualification of the women's team to Group I in the FIBA Asia championship are caught in the middle.

The Gilas Pilipinas campaign in Taiwan ended Sunday, September 6 with a 96-67 demolition of the Chinese-Taipei B team. The win capped off a 6-2 campaign, where the Philippine team lost only to Iran and South Korea, their chief rivals in the region.

Even as they were putting the finishing touches to a first-ever second place finish, coach Tab Baldwin barked: “Play defense!" in a timeout.

As Baldwin rotated his men platoon-wise at times in the tournament, he wants a team that hustles on defense especially on the boards, and passes to create the best opportunity to score. But, the nationals had to fall back on the gutsy penetration of Terence Romeo, who was the team’s most explosive performer before sitting out the final 3 games with an ankle injury, and court-to-court sprint of Calvin Abueva, who scored 20 against USA Select-Overtake on Saturday. 

Romeo and Abueva, along with using veterans Jayson Castro, Gabe Norwood and Marc Pingris, have given a new stamp to the team, which were not able to recruit some of the best players in the PBA for various reasons. Using Dondon Hontiveros, Ranidel de Ocampo, Asi Taulava and Gary David in key stretches was another factor behind the team's good run in the Jones Cup. 

This is a squad playing without naturalized NBA veteran Andray Blatche and using the steadying presence of Moala Tautuaa, a 6-foot-8 Fil-Tongan player who failed to get his PH passport before age 16 per FIBA requirements. The team isn't as star laden as the squad that finished second in the 2013 FIBA Asia but Baldwin has managed to make something out of it. 

The team is playing on tryout mode as the lineup will be announced on Tuesday. It is also apparent the Russian team the Philippines beat is a "pulut-pulut" (thrown together) squad, one former PBA coach told this writer. It is also clear that the USA Select-Overload team defeated by the Filipinos are older but they had more gas in their tanks when they rallied to within 3 points. 

But the big names in the PBA are not in this team. This is a mix of young and veteran players. And they must follow the baton of Baldwin and his coaching staff. 

Baldwin doesn't like players taking a jump shot or a drive to answer a basket scored by the opponent. He abhors half-hearted defense and fans saw part of that when the Philippines defended gallantly in a losing cause against regional powerhouse Iran. 

Because of his no-nonsense approach, interest in the national team has been picking up. Hours before the Philippines vs Chinese Taipei B, the team's benefactor Manny Pangilinan tweeted that he was pleasantly surprised by the response of basketball fans. On the live telecast over TV5, you could see overseas Filipinos in the crowd cheering for the Philippines. 

I'm surprised myself at the level of keen interest, and support, as well as a strong sense of patriotism you guys have stirred. — Manny V. Pangilinan (@iamMVP) September 6, 2015

Only 17 days are left before the FIBA Asia tournament in China. Trainers avoid pushing their athletes during this period because they want to avoid injury and burnout. But the sense of urgency is too great for basketball fans who want to see the national team battle for the only Olympic qualifying slot up for grabs. 

The MVP Cup, which takes place September 11-13 in Manila and will feature Gilas, Chinese Taipei, New Zealand’s Wellington Saints and another team to be confirmed, will show how far or near the Philippines is from that goal. –