When news broke that there was going to be a reshuffle in the groupings for the men's basketball competition in the upcoming 18th Asian Games in Indonesia, there were mixed reactions from the team during the nationals' first practice on Monday at the Meralco Gym in Pasig City.
With confirmation of this being realised Tuesday and with a new schedule already released by the Indonesia Asian Games Organizing Committee (INASGOC), the nation will be placed in Group D with seven-time gold medalists China and the vastly improving Kazakhstan contingent.
The Philippines was originally placed in Group B with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Syria and rebuilding powerhouse Iran. But with the initial withdrawal from the tournament and eventual rejoining, the INASGOC placed the country in Group D after the official pull out of Palestine. That group only had three nations. When the Philippines indicated-on the eleventh hour-that it would be competing, it became logical to reinsert the four-time champions in Group D to balance the field.
"We'll have to do our work with the scouting department," national team head coach Yeng Guiao intimated when he got word of the regrouping. "We really have no time. Now we have to go back to square one and see the Kazakhstan team and the Chinese team (on) how we can formulate a game plan against them."
Kazakhstan will be the first assignment on August 16 and then China on August 21 at the Istora Gelora Bung Kamo in Jakarta. Two teams will advance from each group to the knockout quarterfinals stage which now makes the opener against the Kazakhs a virtual must-win for the Filipinos-who only have a little over a week to prepare its hastily formed quintet before flying to the competition venue on August 11th.
Many were looking forward to the Group B battles as UAE and Syria have traditionally been nations that the Philippines trounces with ease. Victories over those two Arab nations would have rendered the tiff against Iran non-bearing. The Iranians have also shown to be beatable as they are now in the midst of transitioning from the veteran-laden squad they paraded for almost a decade to one now utilizing its youth program to take the place of its battle-tested grizzled warriors.
Now, a loss to Kazakhstan could mean outright elimination unless the Filipinos come away with an outstanding game against the mighty Chinese; which usually sends its best team to this quadrennial meet-although it is coming off a fifth place performance in the 2014 Incheon, Korea Asiad. That was its worst finish since joining the competition in 1974.
And should the Philippines go on to defeat the Kazakhs and lose to China, it will still advance to the knockout stages and face the top qualifier from Group C-which could either be a reinforced Japanese squad or a determined team representing Qatar (or even Chinese Taipei).
Japan, which upset Australia in the ongoing 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers, boasts of two world class additions to their already formidable team with former NBA campaigner (and former PBA import) Nick Fazekas and 20-year-old Gonzaga product Rui Hachimura; the burly 6'8 inside presence while scoring machine Makoto Hiejima and sniper Daiki Tanaka still bring so much to the forefront for the vastly improved Japanese.
The entire campaign now hinges on one win against Kazakhstan to have a chance at improving on its seventh place finish in 2014-also the Philippines' worst at this event.
The Kazakhs have qualified for the second round of the World Cup Qualifiers from that harrowing Group D that had Iran and the Qataris. Although Kazakhstan dropped its two meetings against the Iranians, they routed Qatar twice and prevailed over a tough Iraqi squad in a character-building overtime game.
They still have their reliable veterans in power forward Anton Ponomarev (6'10"), pivot Mikhael Yevstigneyev (6'9"), pick and roll expert Rustam Yargaliev and shooter Vassiliy Savchenko along with naturalized American playmaker Jerry Johnson-who is now 36 years old.
China, for their part, could have their NBA warriors in their fold for this tournament as veteran Yi Jianlian and budding Zhou Qi (both seven feet tall) look to team up with the likes of skipper Zhou Peng, feisty guard Guo Ailun and heady forward Li Gen on a team that is also on a mission of redemption.
With no official lineup released as of this writing, the Philippines will have its work cut out for it heading into a tournament where one victory is what could separate it from an early exit or an opportunity to perhaps even podium.