A week and a half from now, Gilas Pilipinas will embark on its journey towards the 2019 FIBA World Cup in the new home-away format of the Asian qualifiers. First on our schedule is Japan. They host us on November 24. Then Chinese Taipei pays us a visit here in Manila on the 27th.
Along with the calendar changes of the tournament, the new format also introduces a fresh scheme when it comes to rosters. There will be a total of six competition windows, in which each team will play two games – one home and one away. Every window, a team submits a pool that can have a maximum of 24 players. And in the games within that window, they can use a different 12-man lineup from the submitted pool.
As complicated as this seems compared to the traditional 11-day basketball festival, it’s the roster part of the new scheme that excites me. It brings in a new dynamic in preparing for the qualifiers. Instead of looking at the entire field and choosing the 12 men that should conquer them all, you now look at the competition two opponents at a time.
A couple of weeks ago, Gilas Pilipinas revealed the 23-man pool that they submitted for the first window of the qualifiers. These are the men that Coach Chot Reyes has chosed to bring to battle against Japan and Chinese Taipei:
Recent history tells us that Japan and Chinese Taipei are two teams that we can beat.
Based on the FIBA archives, the last time we lost to Japan in a FIBA tournament was back in the 2003 Asian Championship. It was a team that had Marc Pingris, Ranidel de Ocampo and Gary David. But it was Recardo Calimag (12.1 ppg) and Celino Cruz (10.0 ppg) that led that team in scoring. So, yeah, ‘nuff said.
As for Chinese Taipei, we suffered recent losses to them. One was the wake up call in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship. The Gilas Cadets also lost to them in the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge. But we beat them in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup. And while it wasn’t a FIBA-sanctioned competition, the younger Gilas crew topped the two Taiwanese teams in the 2017 Jones Cup last August.
I honestly believe that Coach Chot can opt not to go all out on his roster and we’d still have high chances of winning the two games in this first window. But I also honestly believe that he will not take that option. If there’s one thing I learned in the time I spent with Gilas, it’s that they respect every opponent. They prepare to face a winless team as hard as they would if they were to play an undefeated one.
And while it’s already the competition proper, these games also serve as trainings for our national team. When Gilas wrapped up their 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon, Coach Chot told the team, “that wraps up our first training camp.” With complications in schedule, Gilas never really has enough time to prepare for big bouts. So this is actually a good scenario for us. We’ll face teams we’ve already played a lot before. Gilas can learn along the way and grow together as a group before they face the giant in the group – Australia.
So no, don’t expect this Gilas 12 to look far from full force.
If we’re preparing for bigger battles, then we’ll need this team to look a lot like the one we’ll banner in those. That being said, I feel like the veteran core will be there. We’ll probably see Andray Blatche (hopefully he gets here soon), Jayson Castro, June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar and Gabe Norwood. I also feel that Terrence Romeo (the present and future of Gilas) and Matthew Wright (Gilas’ best shooter) should be shoo-ins.
Carl Bryan Cruz is another very strong candidate. He would not be the only player to be part of four Gilas teams this year (Jones Cup, FIBA Asia Cup, SEA Games, FIBA Champions Cup) if he did not have the trust of Coach Chot.
It’s easy to assume that the guys that went to Lebanon have edges over those who did not. But we have to keep in mind that Gilas had to be divided into two teams because the FIBA Asia Cup and the SEA Games overlapped. Obviously, the squad that played in Beirut was the more experienced one. But there were standouts from the SEA Games crew as well.
None of them were bigger than Kiefer Ravena. He showed leadership and maturity when he was tapped to lead younger units in the Jones Cup, the SEA Games and the FIBA Champions Cup. Kiefer was always respected as a great player. His monicker, The Phenom, is enough proof. Kief has long been a building block of the Gilas Cadets; this year, he showed that he’s ready to join the higher ranks.
But to be able to do so, he’ll have to take the slot of one of the guys who were on the Gilas 12 in Lebanon. Counting out eight that we’ve already discussed, that leaves us with Calvin Abueva, Raymond Almazan, RR Pogoy or Jio Jalalon.
The conflict is, each of those guys offer something unique to the team. Calvin is grit and grind. Raymond is length and a whole lot of fight underneath. RR is three and D. Jio is a one-man press. It’s these reasons why all four of them were also on the team that represented the country in the SEABA Championship earlier this year. So it’s going to be tough decision to take any of them out.
To add on to the dilemma, Gilas also has other aspirants who bring their own offers to the table. There’s Troy Rosario and Allein Maliksi who were also impressive in the SEABA. There’s Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia, Von Pessumal and Kevin Ferrer, guys who were part of the team that beat the two Chinese Taipei teams in the Jones Cup. There’s Baser Amer and Kevin Alas, whose recent performances in the PBA brought them back to the Gilas mix.
Forming the 23-man pool was difficult for the Gilas coaching staff. Imagine how it will be trimming it down to the 12-man lineup. It’s always a task that seems impossible to accomplish. But the decision will have to be made soon. All there is to do is to trust Coach Chot and his crew.
Photos from FIBA.com