CLARK, PAMPANGA - Going 3-0 in the final window of the qualifiers, Gilas Pilipinas Men topped Group A to decisively make its way to the FIBA Asia Cup in August hosted by Indonesia. For program director and head coach Tab Baldwin, though, the focus was more than just about making it into the quadrennial tournament.
"In terms of accomplishments, we were looking at development, progress, what do we learn from these games, what do we learn about ourselves primarily and the systems that we're using, and the chemistry of the team," explained Baldwin.
"We wanted to learn a little bit about the individuals as well: how they'll perform, how well they'll stand up to this level of competition. We learned a lot of those things and a lot of things we were not expecting to learn such as this team having a quality about it and a toughness about it, which you can't really see until you get into a competitive environment," he continued.
The qualifiers started in early 2020, but it did not take long before COVID-19 started canceling events. While Gilas was able to fly for a game in Indonesia, the Philippines' hosting versus Thailand was postponed. Then the supposed first Clark "bubble" was canceled, and the Doha "bubble" was also shelved.
Finally, in mid-June, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) got another chance to hold the games here at home.
The prolonged wait, however, actually worked out for Baldwin and his wards as it gave them extra time to prepare in a safe place to train provided by SBP in Calamba, Laguna.
"All that time in the 'bubble' was very good for us. If you're not learning from your opponents by losing then who do you learn from? The response is supposed to be learning from ourselves by keeping our practices energetic and competitive," detailed the American-Kiwi mentor.
"It's a difficult period for the world. Very few of those living today have had to go through a pandemic. Nobody knew exactly how to react because nobody could predict protocols and government reactions and whatever was going to interfere with our daily lives. There turned out to be major interference, but it also created these opportunities to go into these extended 'bubbles' that were just really the old training camps of yesteryears," he added.
The training 'bubble' itself presented a lot of challenges including balancing the work that had to be done on-court with the academics of the pool's student-athletes. Injuries also turned out to be an issue with Matt Nieto, Dave Ildefonso, and Rey Suerte all going down.
All in all, however, the hours and hours of practice worked wonders for the young squad.
"It's really difficult to be away from loved ones and away from daily routines for that long, but it was incredibly beneficial in terms of building a team. You become interdependent. You have a lot of time to work through things," detailed Baldwin.
"The only negative is that you don't have an external influence, you don't have any games against other teams to test what you're doing, but overall, (it was) valuable time for us. Seemingly, we did a pretty good job and we got a lot out of it. There are things that we could have done better or differently, but for the most part, we came out of the 'bubble' in pretty good shape."
For the battle-hardened tactician, the length of their camp allowed the team to bond and get to know each other, which in turn built trust. The result of this trust was a balanced team that had no superstar - just players who worked well together and made each other better.
"The bigger benefit we got from the 'bubble' was the ability to wear our opponents down because of the development of our bench players. To call them bench players is actually a misnomer because we just have 12 guys who play in varying moments of the game," he noted.
"We have different members of the roster playing different roles. It was very egalitarian. Nobody was a star-in-training. They really cemented that mentality that we're all in this together and we all have a job to do and it carried over into the game," he furthered.
Gilas will fly to Belgrade on Thursday to battle Serbia and the Dominican Republic in back-to-back games in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. The top two teams of that group will crossover in the semifinals with the group composed of Puerto Rico, Italy, and Senegal. Only the tournament winner gets a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
Baldwin, as well as Indonesia head coach and former Smart Gilas mentor Rajko Toroman, have already told Filipino fans to temper expectations as the young squad will face yet another level of basketball there. While the team, of course, is out to compete as much as it can, it will also have to start planning for the FIBA Asia Cup.
"We still don't know the exact content of the team (for the FIBA Asia Cup). I'm sure most of these players, if not all of them, will carry over into the roster there, but there's still this possibility that, and I don't have any updates on anything, PBA players or AJ Edu or Thirdy Ravena or Dalph Panopio will be added," he shared, talking about the regional tourney set to start on August 16.
Gilas is expected to be home in early July and it remains to be seen how long they will have to be in quarantine. If the current rule of mandatory 10-day quarantine will still be enforced, then that leaves about a month of preparation for the team.
Nonetheless, Baldwin is already looking forward to the competition.
"The FIBA Asia Cup is the kind of tournament that I really love because it not just about making tactical adjustments game to game depending on your scouting report, which I'm really into, but there's also strategy. There are strategic plans that are made going into it," shared the shot-caller who led New Zealand to the semifinals of the 2002 FIBA World Championship.
In the last edition of the FIBA Asia Cup, hosted by Lebanon, the Philippines swept its group games, including an emotional win against China, with a team composed of Jayson Castro, Terrence Romeo, Gabe Norwood, RR Pogoy, Matthew Wright, Japeth Aguilar, Carl Bryan Cruz, Raymond Almazan, Calvin Abueva, Jio Jalalon, June Mar Fajardo, and Christian Standhardinger.
Unfortunately, they ran into a brick wall in Korea in the quarterfinals then lost to Lebanon and Jordan in the classification stage to finish eighth. Although getting a better finish will certainly be a good indicator for success, Baldwin always reminds his team that they are playing the long game.
"It's going to be about continuing this process: striving to win games, but trying to take in as many lessons as we can so that we can apply the learnings to teams similar to those that we'll play in the OQT because that is really the level where we want to be at," he remarked.
"Serbia, Australia, France, Spain, U.S., Brazil, Argentina - this is the level where we want to be respected at and every effort that we make is to get us there," he concluded.