BEIJING--Plenty of questions need to be answered when Gilas Pilipinas returns to the country on Tuesday morning, following a dismal performance in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
Despite a brief period of preparation, the national team left for China with plenty of hope, believing that it had a chance -- no matter how slim -- of advancing out of its group.
Those hopes, however, were dashed immediately.
Gilas was blown out by Italy, 108-62, in its first game in Foshan, as the Filipinos never recovered from a brutal 37-8 start. It got worse from there: they were clobbered by Serbia, 126-67, in their next game, then suffered an absolute heartbreaker against Angola in their final group round contest, losing 84-81 in overtime.
A change of scenery provided no relief for the Philippine team. In Beijing, the Filipinos were routed by Tunisia, 86-67, and then bowed to Iran, 95-75, in their final game on Sunday. Gilas Pilipinas is one of four teams to go 0-5 in the World Cup, along with Ivory Coast, Japan, and Senegal.
They wound end up in last place in the tournament, after Jordan defeated Senegal, 79-77, in the final game of the classification phase on Monday night in Shanghai.
"Of course we're disappointed," Yeng Guiao told reporters on Sunday night, after the Philippines wrapped up its World Cup campaign at Wukesong Arena in Beijing.
"Of course, may ano, meron tayong mga lessons na matutunan dito sa experience natin. And at the same time, I guess it's time to re-evaluate our position," he added.
Guiao said he will sit down with his "bosses" upon their return to Manila, and give his notes and recommendations. He also intends to take responsibility for their poor performance, not wanting the Gilas players to bear the brunt of the criticism.
Even before Gilas' last game against Iran, Guiao had already suggested that before looking to compete against the rest of the world, the Philippines must instead try to become the class of Asia first. It was a sentiment he reiterated after his team was blown out by Iran, a team that they had competed against many times before.
"Even with our federation, 'yung SBP, ang unang sinasabi kong dapat nating abutin muna, siguro kailangan nating pag-isipan muna paano natin makukuha 'yung Asia bago natin pag-isipan 'yung mundo," said Guiao.
"Pagdating ng Asia, ayan Iran ang lakas, China ang lakas. Yung China natalo pa ng Nigeria," he added, referring to the host nation's 86-73 setback to Nigeria that dashed its hopes of going to the Olympics next year.
"So even with the African countries, hirap ang Asia."
For Guiao, regaining "Asian supremacy" should be the first step that Gilas Pilipinas has to take. The Philippines had qualified for the 2014 World Cup after finishing second in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, but it had taken a more winding road to the 2019 edition of the tournament after the qualifying process was changed.
Gilas will qualify to the 2023 World Cup as hosts, but there are other avenues where the team can measure itself against its competition in Asia.
"Whether it's the Asian Games, or whether it's the FIBA qualifiers, or making the Olympics, representing Asia. 'Yun ang pwede mga nating gawing sigurong achievable na objectives," said Guiao.
There is also the ever present question of the national team's preparation. Before the 2014 World Cup, Gilas went through an intensive training camp, but the national team was not afforded the same luxury this time around. Instead, the squad settled for a brief camp in Spain, wherein only 11 Gilas players attended as June Mar Fajardo, Roger Pogoy, and Troy Rosario were still playing in the finals of the 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup at the time.
Guiao had wanted the team to participate in the Jones Cup as part of Gilas' build-up, but this also did not happen. Instead, the Filipinos settled for a pocket tournament in Spain, and two tune-ups with the visiting Adelaide 36ers in Manila before they left for China.
They only became truly complete with 10 days left before the World Cup, when Fajardo, Pogoy and Rosario joined practice following the Commissioner's Cup.
"Preparation is key," Gilas captain Gabe Norwood said after their loss to Iran.
Norwood noted that the teams Gilas faced in the World Cup "were together for months and months."
"A team like Iran has been together for years," he added.
Hindsight is, of course, 20-20. Norwood wryly added that had Gilas been successful, "they would've said, we only need 10 days."
Instead, their lack of preparation resulted in some truly disappointing performances. Even against Iran -- a team Gilas was already familiar with -- it struggled to close out on shooters and still had no answer inside for Hamed Haddadi. The plays and defensive schemes that they ran masterfully in practice seemingly abandoned them come game time, a problem that could have been amended with longer preparation.
"If this was a regular training camp, we'd be halfway through it right now, taking our bumps and bruises," Norwood pointed out. "But unfortunately, this was all displayed in front of the world, and that's something we got to live with as players and as a group."
Guiao did not want to use a lack of preparation as an excuse, but he admitted that the circumstances were too unfavorable for them to overcome.
"Meron ding parang mga bagay pa na pwede pa nating dapat pa na nagawa, in terms of preparation," he said.
After Gilas' massive loss to Serbia in the group phase, the European side's coach, Sasha Djordjevic, said the Filipinos displayed some talent and speed, but clearly lacked "quality." It was a comment that stung, but Djordjevic's sentiment had merit. All throughout the tournament, the Filipinos struggled to keep up with bigger, faster, more skillful players.
The team knew it would have this kind of disadvantage heading into the tournament, and it tried to make up for it by focusing on its outside shooting. But the Gilas players were betrayed by their jumpshots: they made just 25% of their 3-pointers in the competition.
"We need some consistency with our outside shooting. When our outside shooting is on, we're in the game. When it's not, we're out of the game," said Guiao.
"And there's really nowhere else for us to look for our scoring except our transition game and probably our outside shots."
The Philippines tried to "fight it out" inside the paint, and against Iran it had some success. June Mar Fajardo had 10 points, going 4 of 9 from the field. But he was outmuscled all game long by Haddadi, who scored 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
"All the teams are just bigger than we are, with quality big men. 'Yun ang difference siguro, 'yung mga big men, quality talaga sa mga ibang teams eh," said Guiao.
For Guiao, this will be another one of his recommendations to the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, the sport's national governing body, once they sit down to analyze Gilas Pilipinas' campaign.
"We need to build and train big men who are going to be quick, who can make the outside shot, and who can defend well," he said. "Those are the requirements if you're playing in the international stage."
"I'm not talking just about Asia, kasi sa Asia medyo makakasabay naman tayo. Pero pagdating sa international, pagalingan talaga ng big men," he added.
There are other questions that need to be answered.
Gilas struggled to adjust to the officiating all throughout the World Cup, and the inability to defend without fouling put the Filipinos in penalty situation early. Andray Blatche disappointed, averaging just 15.8 points per game and looking slow and lost on defense. The team's style of play, which featured plenty of isolations, proved too easy for their opponents to stop.
Ultimately, it was an eye-opening experience -- for the players, the coaching staff, and the federation as a whole.
"Pagdating sa world, iba talaga. Iba na talaga ang level of play," said Guiao.
With the Philippines set to host the World Cup in 2023, Norwood can only hope that the lessons from 2019 will be put to good use.
"Hopefully, we as a country grow in terms of world basketball, and how we approach things," the veteran said.
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