MANILA, Philippines -- Competing in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament was not in the original plans of Gilas Pilipinas, but now that they are in Serbia, the young players of the Philippines are looking forward to the experience.
It was only in February that the Philippines was included in the FIBA OQT in Belgrade, Serbia, after New Zealand withdrew from the competition.
At the time, Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) president Al Panlilio said it was "a welcome development."
Tab Baldwin, the program director and head coach of Gilas Pilipinas, said in a press conference on Monday that while their stint in the OQT was not expected, they are excited to have gotten the call from FIBA.
"We didn't really plan this in our schedule, but when New Zealand pulled out, the opportunity arose, and FIBA kindly invited the Philippines, and we were very excited to come," he said.
It's a sentiment echoed by Gilas Pilipinas team captain Isaac Go.
"A lot of us didn't expect to be here. A lot of us are actually very excited, because I think it's only really Kai (Sotto) who's had a chance to play in the world game, world stage," he explained.
"And now, all of us, from playing in the Asian stage, and now the international stage, all of us are really excited to take the floor, to play, and to take the lessons back. Because these experiences are really, really valuable," he added.
Another reason for their excitement is that the Gilas players genuinely enjoy playing with each other and have real chemistry both on and off the court, said Go.
"I think chemistry is great because from a young age, a lot of us played with one another. A lot of us got to compete against one another," he explained.
"A lot of the guys are having fun, really enjoying each other's company, and we're really excited to take the floor," Go added. "We're on the international stage, it's a whole new level. There's a mystery to it for a lot of us, so we're excited to play and learn from it."
Yet as excited as the players are, Baldwin said they are also aware that the FIBA OQT will be a very difficult competition for them.
Gilas Pilipinas is coming off an impressive performance in the third and final window of FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers earlier this month, where they won all three of their games including a two-game sweep of rivals South Korea.
But the Olympic qualifier is an entirely different matter, Baldwin pointed out.
"It's probably sort of advanced in terms of where our particular program is at," the coach admitted. "We are using a bunch of amateur, young players. We are not bringing the professionals out of the Philippine ranks."
"We just came out of the third FIBA (Asia Cup qualifying) window and had some success there against Korea and Indonesia," he added. "So we come in here excited, feeling good, but understanding that this is a very, very big step up in level for our basketball team."
Gilas plays the home team, Serbia, early morning on Thursday, with tip-off scheduled at 2:15 a.m. in the Philippines. They take on the Dominican Republic at 2:30 a.m. the next day.
Only the winner of the OQT will secure a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.