Looking Ahead to the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship
Come late September, the best of the Asian region will once again clash on the hardwood. Gilas Pilipinas takes another shot at basketball supremacy in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship for Men, which will run from September 23 to October 3 in Changsha, China.
By finishing second in the 2013 games, the Philippine basketball team shows promise that it's on its way to the top. This tournament serves as a doorway for Gilas to compete again in the international scene and prove to other nations that their run in the FIBA World Cup was not a one-and-done deal.
As stated by FIBA officials and the International Olympic Committee in the qualification quota, the winner of this tournament qualifies for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Winning silver again, or bronze, puts Gilas in a much tougher situation as they need to play through a qualifying tournament.
After reaching the semi-final round in 2013, Gilas qualified at FIBA Asia as one of the four Pot 1 (seeded) teams. This puts them in a good position to avoid other seeded squads Iran, South Korea, and Chinese Taipei in the tournament's first round. As a Pot 3 (host) team, China automatically qualifies.
The other 11 nations or Pot 2 (unseeded) teams include Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Hong Kong, and first-timer Palestine.
Not Underrating the "Easy" Group
On June 27, FIBA held the draw to determine the grouping of teams. Gilas landed in Group B along with Palestine, Kuwait, and Hong Kong. Though many touted this group as the "easiest" for Pot 1 teams, national squad head coach Tab Baldwin said that he won't underestimate any opponent.
Baldwin is familiar with international tournaments, having coached other national teams like New Zealand, Jordan, Lebanon, and Malaysia. His experience abroad makes him wary that any team, regardless of its FIBA ranking, has a chance to catch opponents by surprise and score an upset. Winning each and every game is important to build momentum and have a better chance to reach the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The Gilas coach speaks of his personal experience. Baldwin led the New Zealand squad in the 2002 FIBA World Cup though they were considered the underdog against Australia. The team even went as far as the semi-final round of the tournament in Indianapolis. At the 2011 FIBA Asia, he coached a Jordan team that upset the defending champions Iran in the quarterfinals.
Hoping for the Best, but Expecting the Worst
Gilas surprised the world with their performance in last year's World Cup, making them a favorite to win it all in Group B. Looking at how things went for the squad last year, the Philippines has a good chance to advance further in the tournament, and the addition of Andray Blatche makes it more possible.
Last year, the team fielded in Marcus Douthit as a naturalized player. But this year, Baldwin sees Blatche as a more fitting cager to suit up for Gilas given his performance in the World Cup, leading the tournament in rebounds (13.8 per game) and tied for second in points (21.2 per game).
The team can also use his knowledge of China's play as he recently suited up for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers in the CBA. Should the Gilas face China in the tournament, Blatche's familiarity with their style of play and some of their players makes it easier for Baldwin to draw up a strategy.
A lot of experts say that Blatche may opt out of the team in the FIBA Asia Cup. Baldwin, however, believes that the naturalized Filipino center from the U.S. does not have any reason not to play. He said that he spoke with Blatche and that the former NBA cager is 100% committed to the team.
Weighing in on the Challenges Ahead
Iran is still the team to beat in the tournament, with China and South Korea being threats as well. With the return of Fadi El Khatib, Lebanon may also rise again. Though it's their first time to qualify in the FIBA Asia Cup, Palestine looks promising. Jordan, coached by former Gilas mentor Rajko Toroman, can be a sleeper in the tournament should three of their stars join the squad in September.
For the Filipino nation, we can only hope for the best in the 2015 FIBA Asia Championships. Gilas won't have the home court advantage that they had last year, although every Pinoy around the world will surely support the squad throughout the tournament.