Gilas Pilipinas in 2015 knew the best shot of getting into the 2016 Rio Olympics was to beat Iran in the group stage of the FIBA Asia Championship. Beating Iran would mean the Philippines would not have to face China until the finals.
Led by Jayson Castro and Andray Blatche, the Gilas defeated Iran 87-73 before eventually settling for a silver medal.
Asi Taulava and Gabe Norwood, two members of that 2015 squad, are preparing with the Gilas to face Iran with similarly high stakes.
"Our preparation then was great and I can see we're going through the same route with this team. Most of it was all about viewing, studying our opponents and that's the same philosophy coach Yeng [Guiao] is doing," said veteran center Taulava after their practice Friday night at the Meralco Gym. "Though we did not have the same amount of preparation, we're doing a lot of viewing because we understand how important it is to know what Iran is doing."
For the first time, the team did not have their complete pool in practice as Christian Standhardinger was sidelined. Greg Slaughter and Matthew Wright were also not able to practice due to injuries but they were there throughout the two-hour session.
"Hopefully we can watch that game again," Norwood said. "That was one of those performances where from the coaching staff to the players, we were just ready."
Gilas Pilipinas in that 2015 game against Iran trailed by as many as 10 points in the third quarter but regained control because of Castro's hot shooting and tough zone defense that Iran could not solve. Castro finished that game with 26 points.
The big difference between the 2015 squad and Guiao's is preparation time.
Leading up to the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, Gilas Pilipinas competed in a pocket tournament in Estonia, finished second in the Jones Cup, won the MVP Cup, and had a training camp in Cebu where then-coach Tab Baldwin asked them to run Iran's plays over and over again until they had it down.
Guiao's team will have had barely two weeks of practice and one tuneup game before traveling to Tehran.
"It's all mental right now. We can't keep thinking about how we don't have a lot of time to practice as a team because it's useless," Taulava said. "We just focus on what we can do with the time that we were given are the team is thankful to the PBA that they allowed us to concentrate completely on our preparations."
The team is counting on scouting and the belief that they could topple Iran.
"It is nice to see it the commitment of these players. The repetition in very important because we have to master the offense of coach Yeng and we have to be comfortable playing alongside each other," said assistant coach Ryan Gregorio who also serves as the Special Assistant to Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas President Al Panlilio. "The scouting part will play a vital role especially against a team like Iran. What we need is the confidence that this team could be beaten like what happened in 2015."
"We just have to believe that we can beat them," agreed Taulava. "In 2015, coach Tab was so sure we were going to defeat them and it rubbed off on all of us."
The element of surprise may also help the Gilas.
"They can't prepare that much for our guys. We have some players who have been totally unseen in international competition so they might be in for a surprise," Gregorio said.