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Friday, September 19, 2014

Best Chance to Reclaim Asian Games Basketball Gold in Incheon

The Philippines last won a basketball gold medal in the Asian Games in 1962 at Jakarta, Indonesia. That team included Narciso Bernardo, Geronimo Cruz, Engracio Arazas, Manuel Jocson, Alfonso Marquez, Roel Nadurata, Eduardo Pacheco, Cristobal Ramas, Alberto Reynoso, and Edgardo Roque. It also listed The Big Difference Caloy Loyzaga,arguably the best Filipino basketball player, and Kurt Bachmann, the king of hook shot in Philippine basketball. The Philippines bulldozed the competition in the 1962 games en route to winning 7 games with an average margin of victory of a whopping 25 points. In the preliminary round, the Philippines walloped Cambodia, 81-52 and beat Thailand, 72-61. In the championship round, the Philippines beat South Korea, 84-68; Indonesia, 107-74; Thailand, 108-73; Hong Kong, 100-68; and Japan 101-67.

The closest the Philippines came to regaining the Asian Games basketball gold medal was in Beijing Asiad of 1990 with the first PBA-backed squad coached by The Living Legend Robert "Sonny" Jaworski. That team had Allan Caidic, Hector Calma, Rey Cuenco, Yves Dignadice, Mon Fernandez, Dante Gonzalgo, Samboy Lim, Chito Loyzaga, Ronnie Magsanoc, Alvin Patrimonio, Benjie Paras, and Zaldy Realubit. In that meet, the Philippines bulldozed Pakistan 129-81 and edged Japan 86-78 in Group C preliminary round games. In the second round, the Pinoy cagers walloped North Korea, 98-92; got shell-shocked by China 125-60 before subduing the United Arab Emirates, 80-75. In the semifinals the redemption-seeking Philippine squad edged Japan 94-90 to advance to the Finals against China who beat South Korea in the semifinals 92-88. China's size was too much as the Pinoy quintet bowed to the mighty Chinese in the final, 90-74 and settle for the silver medal.

Fresh from a respectable campaign in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain, today's Gilas Pilipinas squad presents probably the best chance for the Philippines to regain its place as the top basketball team in the Asian Games. This year's team will be bannered by naturalized center Marcus Douthit(6'11"), vastly improved Cebuano big man June Mar Fajardo(6'10"), athletic forward Japeth Aguilar(6'9") manning the middle. Hustle guy Jean Marc Pingris(6'3") and stretch forward Ranidel de Ocampo(6'5") will play at power forward. Gilas will have a loaded wing rotation with hard-nosed lockdown defender Gabe Norwood(6'5"), Jeffrei Chan(6'2"), Jared Dillinger(6'4"), the explosive Gary David(6'1"), and combo guard Paul Lee(6'0"). Calling the plays in the backcourt are pint-sized LA Tenorio(5'7"), and team captain and longtime national player Jim Alapag(5'9").

The current team is well-coached and unlike the previous teams, they will have enough size to compete with China and Iran. While they will still be not the biggest team in the tournament, the Gilas bigs can keep up with the size other teams has to offer. A healthy Marcus Douthit will get a chance to bring to closure some unfinished business from last year's FIBA Asia championships in Manila wherein he was unable to play in the final versus Iran after going down with a calf injury early in the semifinal game versus South Korea. Junemar Fajardo has shown that he can keep up with the best of the world as he did not back down battling the likes of Argentina's Luis Scola, Senegal's Gorgui Deng, and the Greek 7-footers in the World Cup. Asian basketball followers will look forward to his matchup versus Iran's Hamed Haddadi who previously dominated Fajardo at the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships in Manila and the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, China.

Gilas Pilipinas has also learned to play against bigger opponents, and was even among the top 5 teams in rebounds per game in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, averaging 39 caroms a match. While top FIBA World Cup top rebounder Andray Blatche is note in the roster for the Asian Games, resident naturalized big man Marcus Douthit is no pushover off the boards. Douthit averaged 9.4 rebounds in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships and was the tournament's leading shot blocker with two swats a game. The Philippines was also the top shot blocking team in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships. Marc Pingris, the undersized power forward, will more than make up for the size disparity with energy, hustle, and speed. He has shown that he can create ways to compete against bigger guys both in Asia and at the world stage. Stretch forward Ranidel de Ocampo is a long-time national team player that will provide experience at the forward spot. RDO will spend some time at power forward, his natural position and may also see some minutes at the three spot with his ability to put the ball on the floor as well as his above average three point proficiency. The athletic Japeth Aguilar was a revelation in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships and with Blatche's non-inclusion in the Asiad roster, he should be able to regain his spot in the rotation.

Team morale is also high coming off competitive games from the recently concluded FIBA World Cup where they pushed world basketball powers Croatia, Argentina, and Puerto Rico to the limit only conceding those games in the dying seconds. They are also coming off a morale-boosting win against Senegal in their last assignment to notch the country's first win in the world stage in the last 40 years. Senegal went on to advance to the second round of competitions where they got walloped by host team Spain. 

Pinoys have always been among the most feared shooters in Asia and the long range field goal will be an important weapon in the arsenal of the Philippine quintet. With the exception of Douthit, Fajardo, and Pingris, all other Philippine players are capable of hitting the three. In the World Cup, Jimmy Alapag hit 45.6% of his trifectas, Jeff Chan 33.3 %, Paul Lee 31.3%, and Ranidel De Ocampo 26.7%. It is also important to note that the Philippines led the 2014 FIBA World Cup in free throw percentage at 79.6% making 74 of 93 freebies. Jimmy Alapag was the 3rd best in that statistic making 13 of 15 for an 86.7% clip.

The current system employed by head coach Chot Reyes is also making it difficult for opposing teams to scout Gilas. At the 2014 FIBA World Cup, different players stepped up for every game. Versus Croatia, it was Jeff Chan displaying his shooting prowess finishing with 17 points on 4/6 shooting from beyond the arc. Chan also had 4 steals, Against Greece, Junemar Fajardo showed some promise against a huge Greek frontline finishing with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 1 steal, and 2 blocks. It was Ranidel de Ocampo who shone in the game against Argentina contributing 18 points. Jimmy Alapag also exploded in the second half versus Argentina hitting five triples to rally Gilas Pilipinas to an exciting finish only to come up short. Then L.A. Tenorio fought toe-to-toe with NBA veteran JJ Barea in the Puerto Rico game, scoring 18 points. In the win against Senegal, it was Junemar Fajardo with 15 points and 9 boards. In the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships, the Philippines was 3rd in team scoring yet did not have an individual player among the tournament's leading scorers. They were 5th in assists but also did not have a player in the tournament's assists leaders, also 5th in steals and again with no player among the tournament's steals leaders.

This year's team is also among the better-prepared with preparations dating back to the months prior to the 2013 FIBA Asia Championships. Ill-prepared Philippine national squads in the past have gone deep in the past Asian Games basketball tournament, and if preparation alone is any indication, South Korea, Iran, China and other gold medal seeking squads should not take this Gilas Pilipinas squad lightly. Filipino basketball fans are optimistic that the gold medal will finally come this time around. #GoGilas #LabanPilipinas #Puso!

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