Is Puerto Rico beatable?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - April 23, 2014 - 12:00am

Puerto Rico is the Philippines’ fourth opponent at the FIBA World Cup in Spain and with at least five NBA veterans in the lineup, coach Paco Olmos’ squad will be a huge challenge for Gilas to overcome. But in basketball, anything can happen. History, however, isn’t on the Philippines’ side. In the Olympics, Puerto Rico has faced the Philippines twice and won, 89-65, in 1968 and repeated, 92-72, in 1972. Puerto Rico hosted the World Cup in 1974, four years before Manila took its turn.

The expectation is Puerto Rico will be bannered by former PBA import Renaldo Balkman and other NBA veterans J. J. Barea, Daniel Santiago, Moe Harkless and Carlos Arroyo. Olmos is reportedly bringing in John Holland of Boston University and Richard Chaney of the University of Utah and Troy University for added depth.

Gilas begins action against Croatia on Aug. 30 in Seville. Then, it’s Greece on Aug. 31 followed by Argentina on Sept. 1. If Gilas loses all three games, it plunges into a do-or-die match against Puerto Rico on Sept. 3 and another knockout contest against Senegal on Sept. 4. It will take two wins to advance a team in the knockout round-of-16, barring tiebreakers, and that means Gilas must score an upset over Croatia or Greece or Argentina or Puerto Rico to go for the clincher against Senegal.

Puerto Rico’s Boricuas, as the national team is called, qualified for the World Cup in Saitama in 2006 and Istanbul in 2010 but failed to go beyond the first round of eliminations. They’re hoping to break the jinx in Seville. It’s not as if Puerto Rico wasn’t competitive. Far from it. In Saitama, the Boricuas defeated Senegal and China and would’ve advanced outright if not for a 73-72 hairline loss to Italy. Slovenia, China and Puerto Rico finished the preliminaries with identical 2-3 records. Puerto Rico was struck out of contention due to the quotient system.

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Another heartbreaker came in 2010. China, Ivory Coast and Puerto Rico ended the preliminaries with identical 1-4 records. The Boricuas beat China, 84-76, and lost to Russia by nine, Greece by three and host Turkey by two. Puerto Rico unexpectedly bowed to the Ivory Coast and for the second straight tournament, made its exit on a tiebreaker.

Now with Olmos, a Spaniard, calling the shots for the Boricuas since the FIBA Americas Championships in Venezuela last year, Puerto Rico is confident of advancing at the expense of Senegal and the Philippines. Puerto Rico finished second to Mexico in the Venezuela tournament which earned World Cup tickets for the top three placers.

“I believe that our first objective is to move on to the second round which is something we haven’t been able to do at the last two World Cups and looks very possible,” said Olmos. “We know Argentina well but we have to see if they are going to keep their roster or include some players from the glorious Olympic sides. In the case of Greece, they are a team with a lot of experience that defends and dreams of competing well in the important tournaments. I don’t know about Senegal and the Philippines but we will do our necessary scouting. The important thing is to be ambitious and to work hard in order to go far.”

Balkman emerged as the Boricuas’ key player in Venezuela and no doubt, will lead the charge especially against the Philippines if only for payback because of his PBA ban. Balkman was booted out of the PBA for his unruly behavior, punctuated by choking Petron teammate Arwind Santos for trying to pacify him, during a game.

Harkness, a 6-9 forward, will be another headache for Gilas. He’s listed as a local because his maternal grandparents come from Puerto Rico. Harkness, 20, was recruited by Olmos, team manager Alfredo Morales and Puerto Rican Basketball Federation president Carlos Beltran.

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“I am grateful for the opportunity to play for the national team of Puerto Rico,” said Harkness. “I look forward to playing alongside these men and helping win games on an international level. It is an added bonus that I get to play for my extended family. I hope to make them and the people of Puerto Rico proud.”

Beltran said the plan is to introduce Harkness to Puerto Rico fans before the World Cup. “Moe is eager to come to Puerto Rico and he has already made the compromise to come a week to get to know the country and his family. We are going to do with him what we did with Renaldo whom we took everywhere. We want him to identify with the country and for the country to identify with him. This young man is going to be a star in the future. He has all the physical qualities to be one. As a person, he is humble and respectful. I know now in Orlando, he is going to be more appreciated now that the Boricuas know that he will play with us.”

Olmos, 43, was initially contracted to coach Cangrejeros in the Puerto Rican league. Now with the national team, Olmos said his life has changed. “I came for what was a five or six-month deal and it has turned into a beautiful marriage with Cangrejeros and the national team,” he said. “As an island, I didn’t know Puerto Rico but due to my profession, I know the basketball of Puerto Rico mainly for its national team. However, today the internet does wonders and you can do research on the country. I looked at where I was going to live, the cities of Puerto Rico and the customs of the country. Everyone thinks of Puerto Rico as being sun and heat but what they don’t know is it rains quite a bit. It’s a pleasure to be in Puerto Rico, a beautiful country.” Olmos was a late replacement for Flor Melendez as national coach.

Olmos will try to take Puerto Rico a step forward in its World Cup journey in Seville. Gilas will boldly stand in his way.

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