We were all expecting a celebratory mood after the fifth window of the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
We sought a home stand sweep of Kazakhstan and Iran.
We defeated this same Kazakhstan team in the 2018 Asian Games by 37. Surely, they would not have posed a threat here on our home soil, right?
And Iran was missing four of its top players. No 7’2 Hamed Haddadi. No cunning Samad Nikkhah Bahrami. No speedy Sajjad Mashayekhi. No versatile Arsalan Kazemi.
Kazakhstan was coming in on the heels of a four-game losing streak while Iran was off a 29-point beatdown from Australia.
These were opponents our national team should have beaten and perhaps convincingly, too. Against the current rosters of both Kazakhstan and a depleted Iran, our own Team Pilipinas had more depth.
But boy, we got a stinging reminder of how cruel fate can be, of how sports fortunes can turn in a flash and how much more ground Philippine basketball has to cover before we can really be counted among the elite teams in this new FIBA Asia landscape.
First, Kazakhstan exposed our team’s main weakness — our bigs. For so long, Filipinos have clamored for more size, mainly because that was one of the perceived weaknesses of our previous national teams. We just didn’t have enough size to contend with, principally China.
Well, now size isn’t really that rare here in these parts. The Team Pilipinas we paraded last 30 November was one of the tallest ever with June Mar Fajardo teaming up with Greg Slaughter, Japeth Aguilar and JP Erram.
Yet instead of size being a strength, it became a weakness because in prioritizing size, we diluted one of our traditional strengths, our quickness.
Our bigs were thoroughly outplayed by their smaller Kazakh counterparts. Kazakh center Alexandr Zhigulin, who hit six triples — most of them wide open — is listed at 6’8. His frontline partner Anton Bykov is “just” 6’6. We towered over them and yet we couldn’t dominate because we failed to close out on their sweet-shooting big men and when we did, they had the quickness to penetrate past our hulking frontcourt.
As for the Iran game, we had it. It was ours to lose in the fourth period, especially with their top two centers — Meisam Mirzaei and Rouzbeh Arghavan — both fouling out. And yet again, we collapsed.
We gave away too many free throws. We couldn’t close out on their wing shooters. We couldn’t get four-time MVP Fajardo going. Even Christian Standhardinger, who played well, became a non-factor in the endgame because of Iran’s well-timed adjustments and shooting.
Now Team Pilipinas is in a quagmire. We’re outside looking in with respect to the FIBA World Cup. We started the fifth window at third place, hopeful that two home wins could potentially throttle us ahead of Iran in the team standings, only to absorb two painful defeats and find ourselves staring up at Japan, which after winning the last six games, is now at solo third.
Where to now, our beloved national team? I believe Guiao and his staff did their homework on our opponents. But the span of time preparing, the chemistry of the team and the inexperience of some were all contributory factors to our current situation.
To be honest, I think we will still make the World Cup. As long as we win one more game in the final window (February 2019), we should be in pretty good shape. That’s not going to be easy since we’ll play both Qatar and Kazakhstan on the road, but it’s doable. It’s realistic.
The bigger question is how will the powers-that-be of Philippine basketball respond to this setback? I hope — like what many have been saying for so long — we will have a revolution in Philippine hoops. I hope all our tournaments will align with the FIBA calendar. I hope all national teams at every level will be given more than ample time to prepare. I hope a truly robust and sensible grassroots program can take root (look at the programs of Korea and Japan as models) and I hope the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas can really hold stakeholders accountable if they lapse in adjusting for the national cause.