Japan closes in on Gilas
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - November 29, 2018 - 12:00am

Four games remain for the Philippines and Japan as they battle to survive in the FIBA Asia/Pacific World Cup Qualifiers with seven countries from an original cast of 16 advancing to the 32-nation conclave in China next year. So far, the only countries in the Asia/Pacific zone to be booted out are Hong Kong, Chinese-Taipei, India and Iraq.

The 12 countries still in contention are from Group E, New Zealand (7-1), Lebanon (6-2), South Korea (6-2), Jordan (5-3), China (4-4) and Syria (2-6) and from Group F, Australia (7-1), Iran (6-2), Philippines (5-3), Japan (4-4), Kazakhstan (3-5) and Qatar (2-6). The top three finishers of Groups E and F will book tickets to the World Cup plus the next best finisher from either bracket. China has an automatic slot as host and couldn’t care less how it fares in the Qualifiers, using the games more for practice than competition.

Japan is breathing down the Philippines’ neck and has won its last four outings. Stars Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe won’t be available for the coming fifth window but it shouldn’t be an issue. Japan faces Qatar on Nov. 30 and Kazakhstan on Dec. 3, both at home and could extend the win streak to six. Then, Japan takes on Iran on Feb. 21 and Qatar on Feb. 24, both on the road. The probability is high that Japan could finish the qualifiers with a 7-5 record, assuming it loses only to Iran in the last four games.

The Philippines is under pressure to pick up more wins with Japan on a roll. Gilas will host Kazakhstan at the MOA Arena tomorrow and Iran on Monday in the same venue. In the sixth window, the Philippines travels to face Qatar on Feb. 21 and Kazakhstan on Feb. 24. The Philippines has to win at least three of the remaining four games to be assured of qualifying in case Japan sweeps its last four contests. In the event of a tie, the quotient system will be applied and in their head-to-head results, the Philippines is +11 with two wins over Japan, 77-71 and 89-84.

Next on the Philippines’ plate is Kazakhstan, a team that Gilas crushed, 96-59, at the recent Asian Games. Kazakhstan has lost its last four games in the Qualifiers, bowing to Iraq, 64-50, Iran, 88-56, Japan, 85-70 and Australia, 94-41. Last June, Kazakhstan elevated assistant coach Renatas Kurilionokas to the top position in time for the third window. Kurilionokas, 29, is Lithuanian and has coached the Kazakh club BK Astana since 2016. It’s no coincidence that in Kazakhstan’s 14-man pool for the fifth window, 10 players are from BK Astana.

Gone from Kazakhstan’s pool are all-stars Anton Pomonarev, 30 and Anatoly Kolesnikov, 29. Of the players in the pool, eight have seen action in every Kazakhstan game so far in the Qualifiers with 6-4 off-guard Rustam Yergali the most productive, averaging 11.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 30.8 minutes in eight outings. Other key players are 6-4 point guard Rustam Murzagaliyev, 6-6 power forward Anton Bykov, 6-8 center Alexander Zhigulin, 6-5 small forward Nikolay Bazhin, 6-5 off-guard Maxim Marchuk, 6-7 power forward Dmitry Gavrilov and 5-11 point guard Shaim Kuanov.

Two newcomers were added to the pool – 6-7 Vitaly Lapchenko, 26 and 6-8 Ruslan Aitkali, 20. The pool averages 6-5 and 26 years old. Only Yergali, 31, and Gavrilov, 32, are over 30. In the recent Asian Games, Bykov was the lone Kazakh in double figure points with 13 as the usually hot-shooting Murzagaliyev was a marked man and finished scoreless but with six assists. Of the Gilas players who saw action in that game, missing in the current 20-man national pool are Chris Tiu, James Yap, Raymond Almazan, Asi Taulava and Maverick Ahanmisi.

In comparative stats over eight Qualifier games, Kazakhstan outshot the Philippines from beyond the arc, 35.6 percent to 25.4 percent and from the line, 74.3 percent to 67.6 percent. Four Kazakhs hit over 35 percent from the three-point line – Zhigulin (42.1), Murzagaliyev (40), Marchuk (36.4) and Yergali (36.2). The Philippines had the edge in fastbreak points, 12.3 to 8.6, bench points, 41.3 to 24.8, points in the paint, 39.5 to 22.8, rebounds, 44 to 38 and turnover points, 16.6 to 14.3. Kazakhstan averaged 21.1 turnovers a game compared to the Philippines’ 14 and it’s something Gilas will definitely exploit.

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