Reality check for Gilas
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - December 27, 2018 - 12:00am

Losing back-to-back home games to Kazakhstan and Iran was a huge blow to Gilas with two games left in the FIBA Asia/Pacific Qualifiers for next year’s World Cup in China so that national coach Yeng Guiao faces the challenge of forming a cohesive unit to play the final sixth window on the road.

Guiao as-sembled strong lineups to face Kazakhstan and Iran at the MOA Arena with the hope of a sweep to bolster the Philippines’ chances of finishing in the top three of its second round bracket. For the first time ever, Gilas showcased a frontline made up of JuneMar Fajardo, Greg Slaughter and Japeth Aguilar to battle Kazakhstan last Nov. 30. The Kazakhs were without stars Anton Ponomarev and Anatoly Kolesnikov but chemistry was on their side.

For the fifth window, Guiao put together a pool of 20 and sent in 16 players. The results were shocking because Gilas lost two in a row before an adoring homecrowd. Both games went down to the wire but the Philippines just couldn’t find the formula to close out with a flourish. Kazakhstan won, 92-88 and Iran prevailed, 78-70, plunging the Philippines to fourth place in Group F behind Australia (9-1), Iran (7-3) and surging Japan (6-4). The Philippines beat Japan twice in the early windows but the 2020 Olympic host has now won six straight to come close to clinching a World Cup ticket.

Guiao said for the sixth window, he’ll call in a pool of 15. No more education by experience. No more experimentation by drafting the best individual talents. No more shuffling of combinations. This time, Guiao won’t take any chances because it’s a do-or-die situation. What Guiao hopes to accomplish is to win both games so he has control of Gilas’ destiny without relying on the fate of others.

In 10 qualifying games so far, the Philippines has rotated 31 players with only Gabe Norwood seeing action in every contest. Four of the 31 have played in at least eight outings. Aside from Norwood, the others in the cast of four are Matthew Wright and Aguilar with nine appearances and Fajardo with eight. Wright and Aguilar would’ve joined Norwood in the perfect attendance list but were suspended for a game because of the Australia incident last July. In contrast, check out Kazakhstan’s lineup.

During the same 10-game stretch, seven Kazakhs went the full route. Kazakhstan has rotated 18 players for the duration compared to 31 for the Philippines. Perhaps, Kazakhstan doesn’t enjoy the luxury of a deeper pool or maybe, coach Renatas Kurilionokas, a Lithuanian, just isn’t as comfortable rotating a battalion instead of a platoon. For the record, both the Philippines and Kazakhstan made coaching changes midway the qualifiers.

There are two ways for the Philippines to advance to the World Cup. First, Gilas could finish within the top three for automatic qualification. That means pulling down current third placer Japan. To move in, the Philippines must at least tie Japan’s record or surpass it. The last two Philippine games are against Qatar on Feb. 21 and Kazakhstan on Feb. 24, both on the road. Japan’s last two assignments are against Iran on Feb. 21 and Qatar on Feb. 24, also both on the road. If the Philippines wins one of two and Japan loses twice, they will tie for third with Gilas clinching a World Cup ticket because of a better head-to-head quotient. If the Philippines and Japan win twice, Gilas will stay at fourth.

The second way is for the Philippines to wind up with the better fourth place record than the fourth placer of Group E. FIBA will advance the better fourth placer to the World Cup. At the moment, the “effective” fourth placer of Group E is Jordan with a 5-5 record. Above Jordan are New Zealand (9-1), South Korea (8-2), China (6-4) and Lebanon (6-4). China’s record won’t count as the host nation has an automatic ticket so Lebanon is effectively third and Jordan fourth. Jordan’s last two games are against China on Feb. 22 and New Zealand on Feb. 25, both at home. It’s possible that China will play an experimental roster since the game is no-bearing for coach Li Nan.

Guiao may decide to use the same lineup for Qatar and Kazakhstan, meaning no switching of naturalized players. In the fifth window, Guiao played Stanley Pringle against Kazakhstan and Christian Standhardinger against Iran. If Guiao brings in Andray Blatche for the sixth window, neither Pringle nor Standhardinger will be tapped because the team may suit up only one naturalized player each game. R. R. Pogoy, Bryan Cruz and Jio Jalalon will be available to play against Kazakhstan but not against Qatar as they still have one more game to sit out before completing their suspension. But if Guiao plans to use one roster for both games, they’ll stay home.

It’ll be a tight squeeze to qualify for the World Cup but Guiao is hopeful and optimistic, calling the mission a “doable” task. It’ll be harder to win on the road than at home but Gilas has a history of overachieving when its back is against the wall. There’s a reason why Gilas’ slogan is “Laban, Pilipinas, Puso.”

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