FIBA World Cup

FIBA World Cup qualifiers: India, New Zealand stand in Gilas’ way

Ariel Ian Clarito
FIBA World Cup qualifiers: India, New Zealand stand in Gilas’ way

TEAM TO BEAT. Dion Prewster and New Zealand pose a difficult challenge to Gilas Pilipinas.


Gilas Pilipinas bears the intense pressure to win against New Zealand and India as it hosts the Group A games of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers

MANILA, Philippines – Fans will get the chance to witness how a retooled Gilas Pilipinas squad will fare in competition when the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers take place at the Araneta Coliseum from February 24 to 28.

As host country, the Philippines is already assured of a spot in the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Despite this, there still is intense pressure for the team to win given that Group A games will be played at home soil. Gilas has also been under close scrutiny after the recent changes in its coaching staff.

What was supposed to be a packed schedule of four games in five days became lighter for Gilas when the COVID-stricken South Korea team announced on Tuesday that it will not be flying to Manila for the qualifiers. 

Fans were looking to watching the two games pitting the Philippines against Korea especially after 33-year-old former Korean Basketball League MVP Kim Sun-hyung publicly declared he was eyeing revenge against Gilas.

Despite the absence of naturalized big man Ra Guna and US NCAA star Lee Hyun-jung, South Korea would still have been a handful with the likes of 6-foot-3 shooting guard Lee Dae-sung, 6-foot-6 bullstrong power forward Lee Seoung-hyun, 19-year-old center Yeo Jun Seok, who averaged 12.3 points and 4 rebounds in last year’s FIBA games in Clark, former PBA Asian import Lee Gwan Hee who played for Phoenix, and 6-foot-1 guard Heo Ung, the son of legendary Korean star Hur Jae.

The Philippines, 33rd in the FIBA rankings, will instead play just two games. It will face India on Friday, February 25, at 6 pm. Coach Chot Reyes and his troops plunge back to the hardcourt on Sunday, February 27, when they take on New Zealand at 7pm.

Here’s a preview of the two teams Gilas will face:

India (FIBA ranking: No. 80)

There was a time that India lived and died with just one player, 6-foot-5 small forward Vishesh Bhriguvanshi. The 30-year-old longtime national team skipper is the first Indian to be signed by the National Basketball League in Australia after he was inked by the Adelaide 36ers in 2017 although he failed to suit up for the club.

The Indian squad, which is known by the nickname Young Cagers, lives up to this monicker as it fields in a roster with an average age of 23 years old. Seven of their players are aged 21 and below.

The Indians will not be lacking in size as they have an average height of 6-foot-6. Five of their players stand 6-foot-8 and above, with three towers standing at least 6-foot-10.

India will be coached by someone very familiar to Filipino fans: Serbian tactician Veselin Matic, who was the coach of the Lebanese team that lost to the Tab Baldwin-mentored Gilas team in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship. Matic knows the Asian basketball landscape as he has also previously handled the coaching reins of Iran and Syria.

Matic will be calling on three reliables to form a potent combination with Bhriguvanshi. These are their twin towers of Amritpal Singh and Princepal Singh, and 6-foot-2 playmaker Muin Bek Hafeez.

Amritpal, 31, is a 6-foot-10 center who has been with the national team since 2011. He played 24 games for the Sydney Kings in the NBL in the 2017-2018 season. He has also played professionally in Japan. 

The 21-year-old Princepal is Kai Sotto’s friend and teammate in the NBA G League Ignite squad. He was signed to a two-year development player contract by the New Zealand Breakers, who also play in Australia’s NBL.

Hafeez is a heady, scoring court general who was converted to point guard from his natural shooting guard position by Matic, who saw in Hafeez someone who could steady the ship for the Indian squad.

New Zealand (FIBA ranking: No. 27)

The Tall Blacks assembled a relatively untested 14-man crew, but it does not mean the team will be lacking in experience.

Thirty-year-old Rob Loe, a 6-foot-11 center for the New Zealand Breakers, first saw action for the national team as the youngest player in the 2009 FIBA Oceania Championships. Dion Prewster, 32 is a versatile 6-foot-5 wingman who debuted for the Tall Blacks in 2015. He was the New Zealand NBL MVP in 2021 and currently plays for Melbourne United in the Australian NBL.

Ethan Rusbatch, a former NZ NBL Most Improved Player, is a 6-foot-5 guard-forward who played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup. Six-foot-seven Tom Vodanovich was the NZ NBL MVP in 2020. The 27-year Vodanovich, a teammate of Gilas prospect Ken Tuffin for the Wellington Saints, has been part of the Tall Blacks since 2018.

The rest of the squad is aged 25 years and below. 

Two youngsters who deserve a close look are 23-year-old Taki Fahrensohn and 18-year-old Ben Gold. Fahrensohn is a 6-foot-7 small forward who averages 12.3 points a game for Ehingen Urspring in the German second division. Gold is a 6-foot-10 unicorn and a product of the NBA Global Academy. He recently committed to Division 1 school Marquette in the US NCAA.

Four other Tall Blacks play professionally in Australia – 6-foot-8 small forward Brayden Inger (Cairns Taipans), 6-foot-6 small forward Hyrum Harris (Adelaide 36ers), 6-foot-2 point guard Taylor Britt (Perth Wildcats), and former La Salle Green Archer Taane Samuel (Brisbane Bullets).

Completing the squad are 6-foot-9 center Tai Wynyard and point guards Richie Roger, Jayden Bezzant, and Joe Cook-Green. –