MANILA, Philippines -- The players of Gilas Pilipinas are working double time to achieve game fitness before they compete in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers later this month, as most of them have not played at all this year.
Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) selected 16 players to the national team pool for the second qualifying window, all of whom are either fresh out of college or still competing for their universities.
Currently, they are staying in a "bubble" at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna, where they have been training since last week. On Sunday, they leave for Manama, Bahrain, to play in the qualifiers in what will be another "bubble."
The players and coaches acknowledge that preparing for the competition is a unique challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has kept the national team from practicing in person for most of the year, and for many of the players, this marks the first time that they are getting actual on-court time.
"We've tried to stay in shape, to get fit," said Isaac Go, one of the veterans of the group. "But as Coach Tab (Baldwin) and Coach Jong (Uichico) mentioned, it's been a challenge to get back to the running up and down the floor, stopping and going, to go up in the physicality of the game."
"So it's been a challenge for us. We've tried our best to stay in shape. A lot of us have changed our bodies, gained more muscle. But at the same time, it's another aspect to use that game muscle and learning how to use it to play," he added.
Uichico, who will call the shots for the national team in this qualifying window, noted that the players are dealing with "aches and pains" that are normal after such a long layoff. He is grateful that the players have been mostly healthy, although Allyn Bulanadi took a knock in the first day of practice.
"Generally, we're all good, except for Allyn, who got injured I think in the first or second day of practice if I'm not mistaken. So, okay naman. Aside from Allyn, we're all healthy," he said.
"So far, the players have been taking care of themselves, resting when they need to rest, so that they'll be ready for our twice a day practices," he also said.
The upcoming window will be a grind for the national team. They are scheduled to play three games in five days, and there are reports that FIBA may be adding another game to their slate. Aside from the Philippines, also included in Group A are South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Baldwin, the national team program director who is also part of Uichico's coaching staff, admits that they are "cutting corners" at the moment in terms of their preparation. It's a concern, especially as the Gilas Pilipinas players are "underprepared" despite their personal workouts and conditioning.
"That's just such a long time away from competitive basketball, away from team environment, away from daily coaching. And it's new for all of us, so you know, learning as we go and just doing the best that we can," Baldwin said of the layoff they all endured.
"But again, we just want everybody to be aware that we understand that all teams are pretty much in the same boat. So we have to approach this as there are no excuses," he stressed. "And, we're going out there to compete and do the best that we can."