MANILA, Philippines –Technically, the matchup on Friday, February 24, between Gilas Pilipinas and the Cedars of Lebanon has no-bearing on either team’s standing and qualification as both countries have already booked their tickets to the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
But don’t tell that to Filipino basketball fans who are expected to come out in droves and pack every seat and corner of the Philippine Arena.
There is no such thing as a no-bearing game for both Gilas and the Cedars, two proud national teams seeking to end their qualifying campaign on a high note so that they will have something to build on as they prepare for the World Cup in August.
There are familiar names in the pool of both squads and some new faces that could make the game on Friday an intriguing one.
Friday will mark the first official game of Justin Brownlee as a Filipino. Brownlee’s level of consistency and excellence has been the gold standard for PBA imports in recent years, and fans are eager to see him bring the same to the international arena, this time for flag and country.
Equally exciting is the return of June Mar Fajardo in a Gilas uniform. How he will anchor a depleted frontline – which could feature a young power forward rotation that includes 18-year-old Mason Amos – will be crucial to Gilas staying in the game versus one of the best squads in Asia.
Gilas Pilipinas lost twice to Lebanon last year. The first was during the FIBA Asia Cup in July held in Jakarta where the Philippines suffered a 95-80 thrashing. The other was in the FIBA World Cup Asia qualifiers in Beirut last August – a Jordan Clarkson-led Gilas squad that once again fell in an 85-81 thriller.
But the biggest question surrounding Lebanon for this February window, not surprisingly, was why Wael Arakji was not listed in the roster.
With Scottie Thompson finally getting his groove in international play and establishing himself as the top Gilas playmaker, fans had salivated at the prospect of seeing the in-form PBA MVP go mano-a-mano against arguably the best point guard right now in Asia. But that’s not going to happen until probably the Asian Games in September.
The real strength of Lebanon, though, is that it can win even without Arakji because the team functions on a system built on ball movement and a balanced attack.
During the November window of the FIBA World Cup qualifiers, the Cedars, missing Arakji, still found a way to topple the visiting New Zealand, 77-65. Despite being slightly outrebounded, 42-39, Lebanon scored 13 second chance points as against just 4 by the Tall Blacks. The Cedars also won the hustle stats with 12 steals versus just 3 by New Zealand.
Two other telling numbers reveal the kind of team Lebanon has.
The Cedars play unselfish basketball. Lebanon as a team issued 21 assists. New Zealand only registered 9 dimes.
The Cedars are deep and have multiple threats. Against New Zealand, the Lebanese reserves contributed 29 points. The Tall Blacks only had 13 off the bench points.
With Arakji and Lebanon’s top local big man, 6-foot-9 forward Ali Haidar, both unavailable, the leadership mantle will be shouldered by two outstanding backcourt men – 6-foot-1 Ali Saoud and 6-foot-4 Sergio El Darwich.
Saoud is a 32-year-old veteran who has averaged 11.3 points and 1.2 steals in the qualifiers. El Darwich is an American-Lebanese who averaged in double figures in his last two US NCAA Division I seasons with the Maine Black Bears.
In the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers, El Darwich is scoring 11.4 points while shooting an impressive 43.5% from three. He is also chipping in 3.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.5 steals.
Fajardo has the perfect opportunity to impose his will in the paint against a shorter Lebanon frontline that will also be missing a naturalized big man. Lebanon’s 33-year-old head coach Jad El Hajj will likely rely heavily on 6-foot-8 veteran power forward Hayk Gyokchyan.
A 33-year-old Armenian-Lebanese, Gyokchyan played for US NCAA Division III school Franklin and Marshall. He is norming 7.1 points and 3.9 boards in the qualifiers.
The other Lebanese bigs are 6-foot-8 Gerard Hadidian and 6-foot-9 Naim Rabay, both of whom also played US college basketball. In his three games in the World Cup qualifiers, Hadidian averaged just 4 points and 3 rebounds in less than eight minutes of play. Rabay, meanwhile, will just debut for Lebanon in the qualifiers.
Lebanon has won nine out of its 10 games in the qualifiers, its only loss coming against Jordan, 74-63, in February 2022. The Cedars got their revenge last July when they pounded the Jordanians to submission, 89-70.
The Lebanese’s high-octane offense produces 88.9 points a game, the second-highest in the qualifiers next only to Australia. The Cedars also rank No. 2 in rebounding and assists, again next to Australia.
Even a depleted Lebanon squad will be tough to beat for any team in Asia. But there might actually be a decent chance for the Philippines to pull off a win.
In the Cedars’ 10 games, they have limited almost all their opponents to 74 points or less. But the team that has scored the most against Lebanon was the Philippines with 81 points.
In Lebanon’s nine victories, it has won by an average margin of 27 points. The only team the Cedars did not beat by a double-digit margin was also Gilas Pilipinas, which lost to Lebanon by just 4 points.
So it won’t be a stretch to expect a Friday thriller.
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