Bright hopes

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Could this Batang Gilas U18 squad become our new golden generation?

As of this writing, I am celebrating (albeit by my lonesome at home while everyone is sleeping) the Philippines’ rousing win over China at the 2018 FIBA U19 Asia Championship, 73-63.

It was a tremendous result, not the least because it came at the expense of the Chinese, who have been traditional foils to the Philippines in all levels of basketball, but more importantly because it catapulted the Philippines to the quarter-finals, where one more win will send them to the FIBA U19 World Cup next year.

Achieving it would be quite historic, given how the last time a U18 Philippine team reached the semi-finals– with a chance at a podium finish–was more than two decades ago in 1992.

That team was bannered by future PBA stars Kenneth Duremdes, Rodney Santos and Dennis Espino. It defeated Qatar, 55-53, to reach the semis but lost to China, 82-74. It routed Japan for the bronze, 103-74.

To provide even more historical context, the last time the Philippines actually won the entire U18 joust was 10 years prior– in 1982– with a team that featured PBA legends Hector Calma, Elmer Reyes and Leo Austria along with current Gilas Pilipinas assistant coach Jong Uichico, among others. They were coached by the late Ron Jacobs, who steered the team to a memorable 74-63 win over the Chinese in the titular game.

For such a long time, we have never seen such glory days at the U18 level in Asia. But this current crop of Batang Gilas talents have a wonderful opportunity to turn the corner.

The triumph over China was actually quite masterful despite what the 10-point final spread may suggest. It was clear to any knowledgeable basketball junkie who watched the game that the young Filipinos were well-prepared against their age-old nemeses.

Even with the rough audio of FIBA’s YouTube livestream, one could hear head coach Josh Reyes, his assistants, and even the players riding the bench yelling out instructions and their opponents’ tendencies to their teammates on the floor.

The Filipinos knew what the Chinese were to do. They devised a prime game plan on both ends of the floor to counter China’s strengths. It was clear that Batang Gilas were at least one step ahead and it showed on the box scores, too, with China never leading in the game — not even once.

Credit goes to Reyes, who, as I witnessed first-hand when I tagged along with the Batang Gilas team that recently saw action at the FIBA U17 World Cup in Argentina, is a master scout. I saw him and the other members of the coaching staff go through hours of video footage jotting down the tendencies and scouting the plays of their foes, eventually leading to two victories (a record-high for the Philippines) at the tail-end of the competition.

I’m not surprised he and his squad were more than ready for whatever coach Zhang Jinsong and his Chinese upstarts threw at them last night.

Even the best laid plans can go awry, though, and this is where the boys’ tight execution came in. The generally crisp execution we saw last night by Batang Gilas was presumably due to the size, depth and basketball IQ of Reyes’s wards along with what I can only assume were comprehensive practice and game-viewing sessions.

With 6’11 AJ Edu, 7’1 Kai Sotto and 6’7 Raven Cortez patrolling the middle, Batang Gilas either sent back or altered shot after shot from China and with aggressive but steady guards like Dave Ildefonso, Miguel Oczon and Dalph Panopio in the backcourt, the Philippines looked like a well-oiled machine on the court.

The length and, more importantly, the timing that Edu, Sotto and Cortez showed on defense was fantastic. In all, Batang Gilas as a team recorded 10 blocks and altered at least a dozen more.

Their offense was similarly sharp, despite connecting on under 38% of their attempts. This was offset by the fact they limited China to just 24% field goal shooting — an absurd figure that you’d be forgiven to overlook if it weren’t so painfully real, especially if you were rooting for the other side.

Now that Batang Gilas are on the cusp of both the semis and a berth in the U19 World Cup, many are wont to ask, “Is this a golden generation of budding Pinoy basketball superstars?”

Well, the short answer — and this is not to jinx their progress at this tournament or future competitions — is, to be quite honest, yes.

Considering the towering size of this team — four guys who are 6’7 or taller (something not even all PBA teams can boast of having) — their experience (a few with a lot international exposure, including Edu who will play in the US NCAA and Panopio who is set to play pro ball in Europe) and their talent level, the trajectory for this generation of players is really very high.

Don’t be shocked if, with a number of these players forming the core, the senior Gilas Pilipinas team for the 2023 and maybe even the 2027 World Cups will make a lot of noise.

Heck, as long as these guys stay healthy and play true to form, they may not just get a place on the podium in the current FIBA U18 Asia tourney. They actually have the potential to win it all.

What are your thoughts?

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