All roads lead to the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City tomorrow as the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) begins. The hopes of a nation to return to the Summer Olympics after a 44-year hiatus rest on the shoulders of the Gilas Pilipinas men’s national team that prepared hard for this endeavor. But it will be a really tall order for the Nationals as only one nation from among France, Turkey, Canada, New Zealand, Senegal and the Philippines will get the ticket to the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil.
Only the winner of this tournament will qualify to Rio along with the winners of the OQT’s in Italy and Serbia for a total of three nations joining the other nine teams in the men’s basketball event. Already qualified are the United States, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, Lithuania and China.
Gilas went through a rigorous road to prepare for the OQT knowing that the competition will be extremely tough. National coach Tab Baldwin assembled a forceful unit from a pool of select pros and amateur standouts to battle the heavyweights from France and the rest of the participating countries. 6’11” former NBA campaigner Andray Blatche leads the charge for Gilas and hopes to repeat his remarkable performance in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. He will have a formidable support at the center and big forward positions with the much-improved June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar, Marc Pringris, Troy Rosario and Ranidel Ocampo. The guard and small forward positions are solid as well with Jeff Chan, Ray Parks Jr., Terrence Romeo, Ryan Reyes, Gabe Norwood and Jayson Castro. These are the 12 men that will try to do the improbable – bring back the Philippines to the Olympic basketball map.
Can it be done? I’d say it’s possible but it would take a near perfect game to upset teams like France, Canada and Turkey. The key is to win over New Zealand on Wednesday, July 6. This would elevate Gilas to the semis, where they’re likely to face Canada or Turkey. If they get past the semis, anything is possible in the final and deciding game, especially at home grounds.
So let’s focus on New Zealand (NZ). The Tall Blacks are ranked 21st in the world as opposed to the Philippines’ 28th. They have averages of 6’5” in height and 25 years in age compared to Gilas’ 6’3” and 32 years. They finished a respectable 15th in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, where Gilas ended at 21st. Last year, they took second place honors in the FIBA Oceania Championship, after Australia.
NZ will be bannered by 6’6” forward Mika Vokona and 6’1 guard Corey Webster, both stars of the Super City Rangers in the National Basketball League in Australia. Webster led the Tall Blacks in scoring in Spain in 2014 with 13.7 points per game, while Vokona dominated the boards with 7.3 rebounds per game. 6’8” Isaac Fotu is a versatile forward who plays for CAI Zaragoza in the tough Spanish League, while 6’4” guard Tai Jack Webster and 6’10” center Michael Karena are regular starters in the U.S. NCAA Division 1 for University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Wright State University respectively. Ironically, NZ’s best finish in international competitions was at fourth spot in the 2002 FIBA World Cup, when Baldwin was its coach.
The Tall Blacks will be a mighty hurdle to overcome for Gilas. The home squad will need to play aggressive, smart and with a lot of heart to upend NZ. Gilas’ advantages will be in quickness and unpredictability. The transition game and dribble drive system can be effective weapons against the bigger Kiwis. Blatche must use his agility and skills to outplay NZ’s behemoths. And Gilas’ outside guns must be sharp on Wednesday in order to open up the interior defense for Blatche and Fajardo.
With the home crowd behind them and a little bit of luck, Gilas could enter the semis with an upset victory over NZ.
In the semis, Gilas’ experience in facing Turkey twice and seeing Canada play in a Bologna pocket tournament could come in handy.
As I said, in the championship game, even against France, anything is possible.