Who’s afraid of Serbia?

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

The Philippine national basketball team will take to the court to face host Serbia in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) at the Aleksandar Nikolic Hall in Belgrade tonight (tomorrow, 2:15 a.m., Manila time) with nothing to lose, everything to gain. Serbia is ranked World No. 5 by FIBA while the Philippines is No. 31. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Serbia took the silver medal, losing to the US in the final. The Philippines hasnt played basketball in the Olympics since 1972.

At the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Serbia crushed the Philippines, 126-67 and coach Sasha Djordjevic insinuated that Gilas had no business playing at the international level, showing no respect for the Filipinoslove of the game. Only four players from that Serbian squad are playing in the OQTNBA players Nemanja Bjelica and Boban Marjanovic, EuroLeague MVP Vas Micic and rugged 6-5 point guard Stefan Jovic. Conspicuously absent are NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and Bogdan (Mr. Automatic) Bogdanovic. Jokic begged off to recover from a grueling NBA season. Bogdanovic is playing for the Atlanta Hawks who are battling Milwaukee in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. Two other NBA Serbian players Aleksej Pokusevski of Oklahoma City and Alen Smailagic of Golden State also opted out of the OQT. The consensus is even without the Joker and the other NBA players, Serbia shouldnt find it difficult to book a ticket to Tokyo.

There are only five teams in the Belgrade OQT. One group is made up of Serbia, the Philippines and Dominican Republic. Left in the other group are Puerto Rico and Italy following the withdrawal of Senegal after four members of its delegation tested positive for COVID-19. The top two placers of each group move up the KO semifinals in a cross-match with the other group and the survivors battle for the single Olympic slot. Assuming Serbia beats the Philippines and Dominican Republic, Gilas must defeat the Dominicans to qualify for the semis where it will square off with the other groups likely top placer Italy.

The arrogant Djordjevic has been replaced by Igor Kokoskov, a 49-year-old tactician who has been involved with six NBA teams as an assistant coach from 2002 to 2020. He was once the Phoenix Suns head coach and is now employed in the Turkish league. Serbias average age is 29 and average height is 6-7, compared to Gilas’ 22 and 6-6. Serbias four 2019 World Cup veterans will be surprised to find that not a single player from the Philippine team in Foshan is in Belgrade. Theyll be even more surprised that coach Tab Baldwins crew has one teenager, Kai Sotto, 19, two 20-year-olds Geo Chiu and Carl Tamayo, a 21-year-old guard whos 5-11 RJ Abarrientos and a naturalized import Ange Kouame who isnt an NBA veteran.

The Serbians to watch are comebacking legend 6-5 Milos Teodosic, 6-11 center Filip Petrusev, 6-6 three-point gunner Ognjen Dobric and the four World Cup holdovers. Teodosic, 34, played two seasons with the LA Clippers and was a two-time World Cup All-Tournament pick in 2010 and 2014. He missed the 2019 World Cup due to injury. Petrusev, 21, averaged 17.5 points for Gonzaga University in 2019-20. Dobric, 26, was the MVP in the recent Serbian league Finals.

If the FIBA Asia Cup third qualifying window was a baptism of fire for the Gilas Young Guns, the OQT will introduce the team to high-grade warfare. But make no mistake about it, Gilas isnt showing up to lose. The Young Guns will give it their best shot, learn from the experience and prove they belong on the same court as the Serbians. Baldwin will make sure no one is star-struck, that everyone is focused on one thingfight for the country. Laban Para Sa Bayan!

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