The mood was serious as Gilas Pilipinas started its preparation for the final window of the 2019 FIBA Asian Qualifiers at the Ynares Sports Center in Pasig. Unlike the ones before that were mostly jovial, all the members of the pool and the coaching staff know that the last two games are of utmost importance.
The Philippines could have almost guaranteed a ticket to the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup if they took care of business in the last window. However, losses to Iran and Kazakhstan at home now means Gilas needs to win both games against Qatar and Kazakhstan on the road.
After building a large pool of players the last time, coach Yeng Guiao kept it to a bare minimum.
Returning Gilas player Roger Pogoy and Mark Barocca and long-time member Gabe Norwood were the first three to make it inside the Ynares Arena in Pasig. They were quickly followed by Jayson Castro, June Mar Fajardo, Poy Erram, Raymond Almazan, Troy Rosario, and Marcio Lassiter.
"This was more of an orientation of what to expect and what we need from them," said Gilas head coach Yeng Guiao. "As it will be my first time coaching Pogoy and Barroca, I wanted to tell them how we run things."
The players who arrived first were able to get some shots up except for Almazan who is still recovering from an ankle sprain. Guiao called them for a short talk and dismissed them afterwards.
Japeth Aguilar and Scottie Thompson arrived as the other members of the team were talking to members of the media.
"What's important is that we instill the sense of urgency to their minds because our backs are against the wall already," said Guiao. "We need two wins or we'll fall short of our goal to join the FIBA World Cup. We can't have that sense of urgency only at the games. We need it every practice as well. We need to understand just how important these games are to us. We know that when the Philippine team is successful, it really injects life into the PBA and to the careers of the individuals as well."
Absent from the first meeting were Paul Lee, Christian Standhardinger, and Andray Blatche who is expected to arrive on February 1.
"I know it's a difficult case for Christian because he's our backup plan for Blatche," Guiao explained. "But if Blatche comes in out of shape or too late, then Christian can fill in the role. But if Blatche arrives on time and in shape, then we can let Christian go."
With a much slimmer pool, attendance might be a problem for Gilas. They'll need at 10 players at all times to run five-on-five drills in their twice-a-week training sessions.
"We're imploring the players and the teams to make sacrifices. Even if you played Wednesday or if you have a game on Friday, I'll still expect them to practice on Thursday because I won't make them practice hard," Guiao said. "We'll just run through the sets with the rest of the team. They don't have to worry about being tired for their game the next day."
Another challenge that the team will be facing is where to play tune-up games. With several countries in the Middle East cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar, Gilas can't fly to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, or even Jordan for tune-up games before heading to Qatar unless they fly to another neutral country that has flights going to Doha.
Guiao mentioned Israel as a possible spot for tune-up games but they have yet to study political issues involving a trip there as well. Iran, Lebanon, and Kuwait, for example, do not allow entry to people with evidence of travel to Israel.
The Philippines takes on Qatar in Doha on February 21 before traveling to Astana to face off against Kazakhstan on February 24. Gilas defeated Qatar, 92-81, back in September but lost to Kazakhstan, 92-88, in November.
Both games will be aired live on ESPN5.