CHANGSHA, China – It didn’t take a second for Lebanon coach Veselin Matic to reply when asked who he think is the underdog when his team faces Gilas Pilipinas in the Fiba-Asia Championship knockout phase which gets going Thursday here.
“We are the underdog, 100 percent,” was Matic’s curt answer.
And not being the prohibitive favorite doesn’t pose any problem for the outspoken Serbian coach responsible for steering Iran to the championship of this tournament in 2009.
“It’s the best position when you’re here, everybody likes this.”
With longtime star player Fadi El-Khatib not around, the Lebanese played inconsistent in the two-round preliminary and needed to beat Jordan in a do-or-die game on Tuesday, 80-76, to arrange a quarterfinal meeting with the Philippines as the No. 4 team in the tough Group F.
And having reached the playoffs, the young Lebanese team is looking to enjoy the opportunity given them especially after competing anew in the international stage following the lifting of the suspension meted on the country by Fiba.
“We did our job, and now it’s game by game. We come here to play game by game,” said Matic of the tournament’s knockout stage.
Gilas emerged the top team in Group E after winning five of its last six outings. This marks the first time in the last decade Philippines will be meeting Lebanon in a Fiba Asia tournament.
“It’s a good match-up. No Iran, and now we play the Philippines. Easy, easy,” said Matic.
Two personalities at Gilas pose a concern for the outspoken Lebanon coach – coach Tab Baldwin, who he referred to as a ‘good friend,’ and naturalized player Andray Blatche.
Matic himself was even surprised seeing the 6-foot-11 Blatche not playing in the NBA anymore.
“He’s a (Blatche) a very good player. I’m very surprised that he’s not in the NBA,” he said. “He’s a quality player, a top NBA player. Now he’s a little bit out of shape, but he’s the best player here.”
As for Baldwin, Matic disclosed he’s the one who recommended the 57-year-old American-New Zealander to be the Lebanon coach in 2010.
“He’s a great coach,” Matic said of Baldwin, who came close to guiding Jordan to the 2011 Fiba Asia championship after losing to host China in the title game, 70-69, in Wuhan.