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By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter
THE Philippine national men’s basketball team has begun preparation for the third and final window of the qualifiers for the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup set for February.
Gilas Pilipinas, currently leading Group A with a 3-0 record, has beefed up its coaching staff and set up camp on Sunday at the INSPIRE Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna, with the end view of forming a formidable team and game plan to do well in the tournament to be held in a “bubble” setting at Clark City in Angeles, Pampanga.
The team is expected to be composed of Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) players and young Gilas stalwarts from the squad that went 2-0 in the second window in November in Manama, Jordan.
To help the team in its cause, the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) brought in PBA coaches Norman Black of the Meralco Bolts and Caloy Garcia of the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters to join interim head coach Jong Uichico, Gilas program director Tab Baldwin and assistant Sandy Arespacochaga in the Gilas brain trust.
Messrs. Black and Garcia are no longer strangers to Gilas, having served under it in different iterations of the team in the past.
Both coaches, who also led their respective teams in the PBA’s own tournament bubble last season, expressed excitement over the chance to work with Gilas once again and contribute in the team’s push to make it to the FIBA Asia Cup.
The two are the latest assistant coaches for Gilas in the qualifiers, following Alex Compton and Topex Robinson in the first window for then interim coach Mark Dickel, Mr. Baldwin, and Boyet Fernandez for Mr. Uichico in the second window.
Among the players early to enter the training camp at INSPIRE were Gilas cadets Isaac Go, Calvin Oftana, and Kemark Carino, with fellow pool members Juan and Javi Gomez de Liano, Matt and Mike Nieto, Dave Ildefonso, Justine Baltazar, Kobe Paras, and Rey Suerte also expected to enter on Sunday.
Dwight Ramos, who performed well in the second window, is expected to be due within the week as he is coming from California.
Kiefer Ravena of the NLEX Road Warriors, meanwhile, was among the first PBA players to enter the INSPIRE bubble.
Others tipped to join him include Roger Pogoy and Poy Erram of TNT, CJ Perez of Terrafirma and Japeth Aguilar of Barangay Ginebra. The invited PBA players are expected to arrive in the coming days depending on their availability.
The PBA said it is committed to helping SBP in forming the best team possible for the last window, lending players from its ranks.
“The PBA has been all-out in its support to SBP. Anything it wants, the league is willing to assist,” said PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial.
To preserve the integrity of the training bubble and guard against the spread of the coronavirus, all those participating will undergo required Real-Time Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) testing and will need to quarantine themselves until the results come out.
Participants are to stay at INSPIRE for the month-long training.
Meanwhile, in the third window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers the Philippines will play three matches, two against Korea (2-0) and one versus Indonesia (1-2).
The SBP is expecting a tough run for Gilas in the window as the other teams are seen making a hard push to make it to the tournament proper. Indonesia, however, is already assured of a spot as it hosts the Asia Cup later this year.
Format in the qualifiers has the top two teams in each group, automatically gaining a place in the tournament.
Apart from Group A, Clark will also be the venue for matches in Group C, which has New Zealand (2-0), Australia (1-1), Guam (0-1) and Hong Kong (0-1).
Clark is one of the four venues selected by FIBA to host the final window, all to be done in a bubble, along with Tokyo, Japan (Group B); Manama (Groups D and F); and Doha, Qatar (Group E).
The SBP said the successful staging of the PBA of its own bubble from October till December in the area was considered greatly by FIBA in its decision.
“If not for the PBA bubble, maybe FIBA Asia wouldn’t have chosen the Philippines as host. They saw the level of hosting we did at the PBA bubble. And that experience in the PBA bubble will be the same experience in the FIBA Asia Cup — even better,” said SBP President Al Panlilio.