Bigger, better pool sought after Batang Gilas debacle in FIBA Asia U18

The Philippines may not have met expectations in the 2016 FIBA Asia U18 Championship, what with their lowest finish in more than a decade and getting beaten by Thailand in group play, but head coach Michael Oliver still chooses to look at the silver lining.

When the dust settled in the biennial event, Batang Gilas notched 3 wins against 4 losses, finishing seventh place out of 12 teams. For the record, that ties the U18 team’s worst win-loss slate ever and is the squad’s worst finish overall since the 2004 edition, when the U18 Filipinos also won just 3 of their 7 games (they beat Kuwait, Qatar, and Yemen, but they lost to Lebanon, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and even Kyrgyzstan) and placed an all-time low thirteenth place out of 16.

That performance in 2004 was representative of how grossly mishandled he Philippine national basketball program was, and, as a result, the country was banned by FIBA the following year, spurning a seismic change in Pinoy hoops.

There was something that happened this year that didn’t happen in 2004, though — losing to another Southeast Asian team. Batang Gilas lost to Thailand on Day 4, 74-71, as the Pinoys just couldn’t contain Thai-American Justin Bassey, who put up an eye-popping 34 points, 21 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks.

It was an unprecedented result for Philippine youth basketball, at least in the past 14 years. The last time the U18 Philippine squad was humbled by Southeast Asian teams was way back in the 2002 SEABA U18 Championship held in Malaysia. Now THAT team was dismal. It was supposed to be bannered by the best talents born 1984 or 1985, but many names on that roster coached by Johnny Tam won’t even ring a bell today (e.g. Jerson Torculas, Benjamin Gadi, Raymund Pacurib, Paul Fedelicio). Ford Arao and Jobe Nkemakolam were on the initial pool that even played in the PBL, but, for some reason, they didn’t make the final cut. Who were other possible top tier U18 players at that time (born 1984-1985)? Here are a few names you may know: Jay-R Reyes, LA Tenorio, TY Tang, Chris Tiu, Jeff Chan, JR Quiñahan, and Rico Maierhofer. If we had a good system for scouting and recruiting Fil-Foreign talent, perhaps we could have even “discovered” guys like Jared Dillinger, Gabe Norwood, and Sol Mercado (all of whom were born 1984 or 1985) much earlier.

These same struggles have long hampered our youth teams, and we saw them again this year, with Batang Gilas — hard working as they are — repeatedly stumbling amidst generally bigger, more talented, and more internationally-exposed opponents.

Despite their relatively low placing, however, coach Oliver still chooses to look at the bright side.

“In terms of overall performance, I think the team did well,” says Oliver in a post-tournament interview. “Unfortunately, the momentum didn’t shift on our side in the last 3 minutes of our game against Korea.”

Korea again. Our boys had them on the ropes late in the fourth period of their quarterfinal affair, but Korea’s conditioning, size, and talent just proved to be too much. Inconsistency plagued the Philippines throughout the tourney, and it reared its ugly head at the worst possible time.

Inconsistency — that’s often an offshoot of depth, or, rather, lack thereof. Teams at the international stage tend to play inconsistently when their supporting cast isn’t as deep or as big as their core players. Batang Gilas could have used another big man aside from Kemark Cariño (Where was Jay Pangalangan?), another athletic wingman aside from Josh Sinclair (Dwight Ramos chose to stay in the US), or another aggressive playmaker aside from JV Gallego (Ricci Rivero, who bowed out of the pool a few months ago, would have been perfect). The team, as good and full of “puso” as it was, just didn’t have enough depth at the Asian level.

Even against the Thais, whom Batang Gilas defeated twice in the 2016 SEABA U18 Championship (granted, Bassey didn’t play), the Filipinos couldn’t get much going.

“Our lowest point was the game against Thailand,” admits coach Oliver.

The former FEU Tamaraw point guard and former coach of the FEU Diliman Baby Tamaraws didn’t mince his words when he lamented about the team’s what-could-have-beens.

“Having a pool of better players would have been nice,” he says.

“It is no assurance that you’ll win the championship,” he adds. “But, honestly, the [Batang Gilas] program needs the support of all the schools.”

By support, coach Oliver simply means the most talented players at every age group have to be unequivocally released when they are called by the national team. Currently, even if on paper the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) is the country’s governing body for the sport, there just doesn’t seem to be any accountability when it comes to keeping talents from playing for the national team.

There’s nothing to stop a school from not granting permission. For the record, such issues don’t really exist elsewhere in Asia. Even in countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Korea where school-based youth programs (as opposed to club-based programs) are the norm, national teams don’t need to secure permission from any academic institution. When a player is hand-picked by the national federation, he goes. It should be as simple as that.

But not here in the Philippines.

“Getting the permission from their school teams so they can play for the country is still a big challenge up to now,” reveals coach Oliver.

Perhaps one day, when the SBP has “more teeth,” things will change. Perhaps one day, it’ll be the schools and leagues beholden to the national federation and not the other way around. Perhaps one day, “securing permission from schools” will be a thing of the past.

Sadly, however, that day has yet to come.

For now, all coach Oliver can do is look ahead because next year the SBP needs to form a new pool of young talent for the U16 championships (where Australia and New Zealand may both join). By that time, he hopes some of the brightest (and tallest) young Pinoy talents will be ready to wage war.

Even amid this year’s big disappointment, coach Oliver remains hopeful and is optimistic about the some of the program’s brightest prospects for the very near future.

“We’re very excited for next year because Kai Sotto and Ethan Kirkness are both 6’9 and just 14 years old right now,” says coach Oliver. “I hope they will become 7-feet by next year.” – By Enzo Flojo

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