Gilas Pilipinas is headed for a rough and bumpy road to get to the top of the FIBA Asia Championship mountain, where a berth in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics awaits the gold medal winner.
The gritty Nationals have advanced to the second round where they meet dangerous Japan, defending champion Iran and the much-improved India. In the second round, the Philippines hopes to land one of four slots from Group E to advance to the quarterfinals.
There is no doubt that Gilas will advance to the quarters, expectedly along with Iran, Palestine and Japan. But the placing will be crucial in order to have an easier assignment in the knockout phase. After the second round, the top four teams from Groups E and F will clash in the crossover quarters. I expect China, Korea, Lebanon and Jordan, in that order, to advance from Group F. And so, from this list, we should try to avoid an early collision with host China, which will be very tough to beat in its home turf, and archrival Korea. To do that, Gilas must aim to be first or second in Group E after the second round.
Of course, a sweep of Japan, Iran and India will ensure the Nationals of the top spot in Group E. This is certainly doable. But upending the taller and more experienced Iranians is easier said than done. Iran has been the most successful Asian cage team in the last decade, winning three of the last four Asian championships – in 2007 (Tokushima, Japan), 2009 (Tianjin, China) and 2013 (Manila, Philippines). China won the 2011 edition in Wuhan. Iran also has the most dreaded starting five of all teams, with the 7’2” center and former NBA campaigner Hamed Ehadadi, prolific shooting forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, witty playmaker Mahdi Kamrani, tireless power forward Oshin Sahakian, and three-point specialist Hamed Afagh at off guard. But also, the best performer in this Iranian team so far is 6’9” big forward Mohammad Hassanzadeh Saberi, who leads the team in scoring (19.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.3 rpg). Another second stringer performing brilliantly in this tournament is veteran center Asgar Kardoustpoustins, who averaged 10 points and 5.3 boards per game in the first round.
The Iranians are a tough match-up for any team in Asia, including towering China. Not only does this West Asian team have the height, heft, skills and experience but also a very disciplined and systematic unit. Moreover, Iran had the luxury of a long preparation for this joust.
So what are the chances of Gilas pulling an upset over Iran? I would say, pretty good.
Don’t get me wrong. The Pinoys will definitely be heavy underdogs when they tangle with the Iranians today (11:45AM). It’s no secret that Gilas didn’t have several months of preparation. Or that some players in Tab Baldwin’s wish list didn’t make it to Changsha. No one can argue that Junemar Fajardo, Greg Slaughter, Paul Lee, L.A. Tenorio and Jeff Chan could’ve bolstered the squad.
But I think this particular bunch is pretty special because of its role players. This batch of National players, called Gilas 3.0, has enough workhorses; players who are willing to sacrifice their bodies and do the dirty laundry, and make their teammates look good. Players like Calvin Abueva, Marc Pingris, Matt Ganuelas, Sonny Thoss, Gabe Norwood, and the “Rock of all Ageless” Asi Taulava. These guys, although highly skilled in all aspects of the game, don’t mind leaving much of the scoring chores to Andray Blatche, Jason Castro, JC Intal, Dondon Hontiveros, RDO and Terrence Romeo. These are exactly the guys that can measure up with the mighty warriors of Iran.
We do have one advantage, and that’s speed. Baldwin loves to pressure and attack in transition. This could be the key. If Gilas’ defense holds, and the Dribble Drive Offense runs smoothly, a victory over Iran may not be a far-flung idea after all.
A win over Iran will erase the stigma of the loss to Palestine, and certainly improve drastically our chances of advancing to the medal round.