Can Batang Gilas rule the 2016 FIBA Asia Championship?

“Talo kami ng 10 points kanina,” said Batang Gilas coach Michael Oliver after his wards lost a tune-up game against FEU-Diliman last Thursday. “Kinulang kami kasi wala si Jolo Mendoza at nangangapa pa sina JV Gallego at si Kemark Cariño.”

“Pero buti na rin nakalaro kami ng tune-up para at least nakita namin kung ano pa ang kulang.”

On Friday, July 22, 2016, the hostilities of the 2016 FIBA Asia U18 Championship in Tehran, Iran will kick off, and Batang Gilas begins its mission to qualify for the 2017 FIBA U19 World Championship in Cairo, Egypt. Only the top three Asian countries will make it, and with so many tough teams in this tournament, the Filipinos certainly have their work cut out for them.

At the helm of it all is coach Oliver, who was also the coach of the Batang Gilas team that made history by beating China for the first time in last year’s U16 Championship. He notes, however, that his squad this year is made better with more size and a deeper well of talent.

“The difference between now and our under-16 is we got bigger,” says Oliver. “Also, talent-wise, we’re better because most of our players are already at the college level.”

Despite that, the gravity of the mission is not lost on Oliver, whose team is in the same preliminary group as Iraq, India, SEABA rivals Thailand, dangerous Taiwan, and defending champion China. Batang Gilas needs at least 2 wins in the first round to qualify for the crossover knockout quarterfinals.

That our boys will square off against much bigger foes is nothing new, and coach Oliver is counting on his wards’ energy and effort to compensate for their deficiency in size.

“The biggest challenge is for us to be able to compete and sustain our energy level against out taller and quicker opponents,” he says. “We all know that they are bigger than us, so we need that extra effort in every game, especially on defense.”

To be quite frank, Batang Gilas should make it to the second round without much trouble, but advancing into the semifinals and beyond looks to be a very tall order. Many of the other teams have really brought out the big guns for this joust, what with China, Iran, Kazakhstan, and even Thailand having players already at the pro level. In contrast, most of our boys are going to have their first taste of collegiate ball just this year.

Korea is going to be a heavy favorite given the experience of their top three players — Yang Jae-Min, Lee Jung-Hyun, and Shin Min-Suk — all of whom played in the 2016 FIBA U17 World Championship in Spain, where Korea finished an impressive 8th out of 16 teams. Taiwan played in that tournament, too, placing 14th, and they’ve brought a couple of key players — 6’9 Wu Pei-Chia and star guard Chen Yu-Wei — here to spearhead their charge.

Some of the other interesting names to watch here include foreign-born or half-foreigner players like our very own Australia-born Joshua Sinclair, whose star has shone in a couple of FIBA 3×3 tournaments. China has its very first half-foreigner player in 6’10 half-Nigerian Taruike Jianiyou, Japan will lean on 6’8 half-American Avi Koki Schafer, Thailand looks to be led by Colorado native Justin Bassey, and Lebanon will be bannered by USA-born 6’8 Naji Ozeir.

Against such tough foes, will Batang Gilas be able to succeed in its mission of finishing on the podium for the first time since 1989? In all honesty, I’m not overly confident, but if 6’8 Kemark Cariño can hold his own around the basket and notable guys like Gallego, Gian Mamuyac, JB Bahio, AJ Madrigal, and Fran Yu can ably support Mendoza and Sinclair, the Pinoys may just spring a few surprises.

#LabanPilipinas #Puso – By Enzo Flojo

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