Gilas Pilipinas will enter the men’s basketball competition of the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games as a surefire favorite due to its depth, size, experience and homecourt advantage.
But, does it mean that a golden finish is already assured for a squad that failed to shine this year?
Remember that 2019 is a year Gilas fans would rather forget following a very sloppy performance in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in August.
It won’t be easy to erase from our collective memory how our national team got plastered at the quadrennial meet in China, losing all its five games by an average 29.7 points.
If one were going to be completely objective, he or she couldn’t be faulted for questioning if the Philippines even belonged on world stage of basketball.
That’s why the SEA Games campaign is crucial. We need to be absolutely dominant in this competition if at the very least, regain a semblance of our identity as the powerhouse in Southeast Asian basketball and as a true contender in the continent.
Remember the term: Absolutely dominant.
We don’t want to see close games. We want to see blowouts. We want lopsided victories for our country that, very recently, has been under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The team we have built, after all, is the arguably deepest SEA Games team we’ve ever assembled.
As of this writing, Gilas Pilipinas will be bannered by an all-professional contingent led by World Cup veterans June Mar Fajardo, Japeth Aguilar, Troy Rosario, Kiefer Ravena and RR Pogoy.
Returning to national team duty after skipping the FIBA World Cup in China are Marcio Lassiter, LA Tenorio, Matthew Wright, Stanley Pringle and Christian Standhardinger, while we also have a couple of freshly minted Gilas talents in Chris Ross and Vic Manuel.
By all intents and purposes, that’s a team that should produce highlight after highlight and waltz its way to the top of the podium without much of a problem, especially with coach Tim Cone steering the ship.
But it would also be foolish to outright discount the challenge posed by our regional neighbors.
Remember that two years ago in Kuala Lumpur, Gilas Pilipinas had to navigate some rough waters against Southeast Asian rivals Thailand and Singapore.
They beat the Thais by just seven points in the group phase and won over Singapore by just eight points in the knockout semifinals.
Rosario, Ravena, and Standhardinger are the holdovers from that gold medal squad, which is going to see action here in Manila.
The Thais will pose the biggest challenge this year again as they will be parading a team that has solid size, depth, and of course, experience.
Expected to lead their charge is Thai-American Tyler Lamb along with seasoned national team players Chitchai Ananti, Darongpan Apiromvilaichai, and Nakorn Jaisanuk while Teerawat Chanthachon, Chanatip Jakrawan, and Patiphan Klahan will patrol the paint.
Lamb had 17 points the last time Thailand played the Philippines in the SEA Games while Jakrawan had nine points and 14 rebounds.
Indonesia is also expected to be a medal contender, although based on latest reports, Timnas Basket will be without any naturalized players.
Denzel Bowles, Jamarr Johnson, and Lester Prosper were all candidates to reinforce the national team, but as of now, none of them will suit up.
Marquee Indonesian talents Mario Wuysang, Arki Wisnu, and Dodo Sitepu are also conspicuously absent from the roster that will be spearheaded by Andakara Prastawa, Abraham Grahita, Hardianus Lakudu, Kevin Sitorus, and Vincent Kosasih with former Serbian Rajko Toroman calling the shots.
They were sliver medalists in 2017, and would love to repeat if not surpass that feat here in Manila.
Vietnam also made a lot of noise heading into the SEA Games as it parades several Vietnamese-foreign players like Dinh Thanh Tam, Dinh Thanh Sang, Tran Dang Khoa, Justin Young and Chris Dierker.
Malaysia and Singapore should also challenge for spots on the podium.
Veterans Kuek Tian Yuan, Wong Yi Hou, and Ting Chun Hong should lead this team while the Singaporeans will lean on Delvin Goh, Leon Kwek, Larry Liew and Wong We Long.