To say that the preparations of Gilas Pilipinas for the 2019 FIBA World Cup have been less than ideal is a huge understatement. Gilas Pilipinas has run into a spate of bad luck that one might as well call their journey to China “a series of unfortunate events”.
First, there was Marcio Lassiter, hands down the best shooter in the national pool, going down with an injury a little over a month before the World Cup opens in China.
They had three players — June Mar Fajardo, Troy Rosario, and RR Pogoy — missing the Spain training camp because of the PBA finals. Raymond Almazan also was unable to join the team because his visa was disapproved. Gabe Norwoord only played one game in Spain after suffering a groin injury.
They missed out the chance to face the powerhouse Spanish team in the Torneo de Malaga after unexpectedly losing to Congo, a team they had previously beaten easily in their first tune-up game.
Spanish trainer Jaime Capella, expected to arrive in Manila this week to serve as the team’s strength and conditioning coach, failed to secure permission from his mother club to fly to the Philippines.
Shooting specialist Matthew Wright and defensive ace Poy Erram also joined the list of walking wounded when the two also went down with injuries and were then ruled out of the final line-up.
Coach Yeng Guiao now has the unenviable task of making sure that these developments do not deflate the confidence of the team as they enter the prestige tournament this weekend.
Even if they had better preparations, Gilas Pilipinas would still be going to the World Cup as the clear underdogs. The odds have been stacked even higher now. One can only wonder if the law of averages will eventually be kind to Gilas Pilipinas.
What are the possible variables going for Gilas Pilipinas that could turn the odds in their favor?
First, if there is one coach in the local scene who knows how to make things work despite numerous limitations, it is Guiao. He may not be as charismatic as coach Chot Reyes nor as knowledgeable about the international game as Coach Tab Baldwin, but Guiao is an astute technician who knows what buttons to push to inspire his players and how to turn meager resources into an advantage. If the national team were ever going to war with at a disadvantage, the best person to serve as their general is none other than coach Yeng.
Second, Gilas Pilipinas knows they will need to rely on speed against taller and heftier teams. This current iteration of Gilas will have a motley crew of young thoroughbreds who are capable of running at every opportunity. Rookies CJ Perez and Robert Bolick showed this in their games in Spain.
Along with Kiefer Ravena who has over a year’s worth of pent-up energy waiting to be unleashed, the three youngsters will be needed to tirelessly anchor the team’s running game. A couple of quick, easy baskets in transition will go a long way in helping the team get their offense going.
Third, although Fajardo, Rosario, and Pogoy may still feel the wear and tear of the recent PBA finals, they can be expected to still be sharp and in game shape. Pogoy will arguably be the team’s best shooter. With Paul Lee also capable of lighting it up from beyond the arc, Gilas will have a troika of gunners who can space the floor. Rosario will be the second coming of Ranidel de Ocampo, a stretch four who can draw out opposing bigs and allow Andray Blatche and Fajardo to operate down low.
Lastly, Blatche and Fajardo together in the low block will pose match-up problems for Italy and Angola. Italy has a thin frontline with 6’10 Danilo Gallinari standing as the team’s tallest player. There is no one among the Italian frontliners who can guard Fajardo one-on-one.
Fajardo has shown that he can score against top international big men. The problem has always been his own ability to defend agile bigs who can shoot from outside and play the screen-and-roll. This is where Japeth Agulilar will be come in handy. Angola also does not have anyone who can cover Blatche. Serbia, though, is a totally different story. Fajardo will have his hands full against 7’0 Miroslav Raduljica and 7’3 Boban Marjanovic, while Blatche and Aguilar may find NBA All Star, 7’0 Nikola Jokic, and 6’10 Sacramento King Nemanja Bjelica too much to handle.
One can only hope Gilas Pilipinas will catch a lucky break in the World Cup. The chances of this happening may be not be too good, but previous campaigns of Gilas Pilipinas have always been built on hope. Whether that would be enough to tide the team by is something that will be answered beginning August 31.
(Images from FIBA/Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas)