FINALLY, it comes down to this.
The quest for a berth in the World Basketball Championship begins for Gilas Pilipinas on Thursday when the 27th Fiba-Asia Men’s Championship formally comes off the wraps Thursday at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The national team flexes its muscle right away as it takes on Saudi Arabia in its debut game at 8:30 p.m.
Chot Reyes, the Gilas Pilipinas coach, said he doesn’t know much about their Arab opponents but expects the match to be a good initial test for the nationals.
“I’m not overlooking Saudi Arabia, but we’re preparing for Jordan and Chinese-Taipei,” said Reyes of the two other teams bracketed with Gilas in Group A of the biggest cage tournament in the region being hosted by the country for the first time after 40 years.
“There is not gonna be one easy game for us,” added Reyes, who is in his second tour of duty as head coach in the Fiba-Asia meet.
The Gilas-Saudi Arabia tussle serves as the main game of a heavy seven-game bill on opening day.
Tournament heavyweight Iran kicks off the action at 11 a.m. against Malaysia (Group C) as the former two-time Fiba-Asia champion, led by NBA veteran Hamed Haddadi, bids to reclaim the title it lost to host China in the 2011 edition of the meet in Wuhan.
Jordan, runner-up two years ago, and Chinese Taipei then collide at 1:15 p.m. in their Group A play, before Qatar and Japan lock horns at 3:30 p.m. in a battle of Group B teams.
Defending champion China, led by NBA veteran Yi Jian Lian and Olympians Liu Wei and Wang Zhizhi, goes up against dangerous South Korea (Group C) in an early clash of contenders at 6 p.m.
Kazakhstan takes on Thailand in the 10:30 p.m. nightcap.
For the lone game at the Ninoy Aquino Stadium, India and Bahrain face off at 6 p.m.
Reyes acknowledges the enormous pressure facing his team not only in its hunt for one of three berths at stake in next year’s World Basketball Championship in Spain, but also of having to meet the expectations of the 95 million-basketball loving Filipinos.
“The way to handle pressure is to acknowledge it. We can’t deny there is pressure, so we have to learn to embrace it,” said Reyes, whose first shot at coaching in the Fiba-Asia ended in a ninth-place finish for the Philippines in 2007 in Tokushima, Japan.
But the national coach said the team has been focus on executing well on offense and play defense.
“We’re focusing on our responsibilities on offense and focus on our defense because by doing that, we can keep the pressure out of our minds,” explained the fiery Gilas mentor.
“Everybody knows what we’ve gone through. So I’m always telling the players to make the most out of this experience. We vowed to come out fighting tooth and nail because nobody’s gonna fight harder in the tournament than your team.”