FACED with a make-or-break situation, national coach Yeng Guiao came up with intriguing choices in a 14-man pool that marks the comeback of naturalized player Andray Blatche and the return of Mark Barroca to the national team set-up.
Blatche, Barroca, TnT's Roger Pogoy and Raymond Almazan were the new names in the pool released by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) on Tuesday for Team Pilipinas' must-win road games against Kazakhstan and Qatar next month.
Also in the pool are Jayson Castro, Paul Lee, Scottie Thompson, Marcio Lassiter, Gabe Norwood, Troy Rosario, Japeth Aguilar, Poy Erram, June Mar Fajardo, Raymond Almazan, and Christian Standhardinger, who was named back-up naturalized player.
The most surprising choice was Barroca, an original in the Smart Gilas sides of Rajko Toroman who makes his return to the national team after leading Magnolia to its first PBA championship in four years.
Barroca, named Finals MVP after the Hotshots beat Alaska in the PBA Governors Cup title series, reunites with Marcio Lassiter - another member of that original Gilas team put up in the early years of Manny V. Pangilinan's reign as SBP head.
SBP president Al Panlilio expressed his gratitude to the PBA board of governors led by its chairman Ricky Vargas and Commissioner Willie Marcial for approving the release of players for practice sessions and the break the league will have during the qualifiers.
The national team resumes its practice session on January 21, and will travel to the Middle East by the second week of February to play a series of tune-up matches.
“As this window is critical in our campaign, we would like to thank again the support of the PBA for making the PBA players available,” said Panlilio.
Blatche's arrival relegated Standhardinger to back-up status and bumped off another naturalized player in Stanley Pringle. Also out was Greg Slaughter as Guiao opted for Fajardo, Erram, Aguilar, Rosario and Almazan in the frontline.
Rosario, however, is doubtful for the. Feb. 21-25 window after suffering a nose injury during TnT Katropa's tune-up game against NLEX - an injury that is expected to keep him out for about two months.
Almazan is another question mark considering he hasn't seen action since going AWOL with mother club Rain or Shine late last season.
On the other hand, Barroca will share point guard duties with Castro while Pogoy - a mainstay of the Chot Reyes-era Gilas sides - bolsters Guiao's army of shooters that also includes Lee and Lassiter.
The new-look national pool is set to assemble on January 21 to start its buildup for a Feb. 21 game against Qatar and a Feb. 24 rematch with Kazakhstan - both of which the Philippines needs to win to have a shot at qualifying for the 2019 Basketball World Cup in China.
Team Pilipinas occupies fourth place in Group F with an even 5-5 record, obviously hurt by its back-to-back losses at home against the Kazakhs and Iran. Australia is on top of the group with a 9-1 card followed by Iran (8-2), and Japan (6-4).