NATIONAL coach Tab Baldwin said playing in its 'comfort zone' before home fans will be a plus for Gilas Pilipinas in the 2016 Fiba Olympic Qualifying Tournament but was quick to tone down expectations, saying the job of qualifying for the Rio Games is in no way easy.
Speaking the morning after Manila was awarded the right to host one of three Olympic wildcard qualifiers alongside Serbian city Belgrade and Turin, Italy, Baldwin said the hosting will enable Gilas to stay in its comfort zone when it guns for a historic return to the Olympic Games.
However, the American-New Zealander was also quick to warn that all the opponents that Gilas is bound to face in the six-team Manila qualifier are seasoned, world-caliber teams so used to playing before hostile crowds.
“The only thing that the announcement (of Philippines’ hosting) affords us is the homecourt advantage and I think that’s a plus. We will be playing in front of the home fans,” Baldwin said.
“The other side of it is that the teams that will be coming over like the Europeans and American teams, they’re very seasoned, veteran teams, they play in big crowds and big moments, I don’t think it will be a big negative for them, but it will be big positive for us,” he added.
Baldwin, who led Gilas to a runner-up finish behind host China in last year's Fiba Asia Championship in Changsha, also conceded that the hosting right will spare Gilas of the nuances of international play.
“It can only help the team that we don’t have to live out of our comfort zones. We don’t have to travel so much. We will be playing in front of our home crowd. We will be in our comfort area. All these things will be an advantage for us, things that the other countries have to adjust to,” said the 57-year-old veteran internationalist.
With homecourt advantage secure, the next immediate concern is the drawing of lots which will happen on January 26 to determine the six-team groups for the three qualifiers, each one staking a ticket to the Rio Olympics.
Angola, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Senegal, Serbia, Tunisia and the Philippines earned spots the qualifiers while Latvia, Croatia and Turkey were invited to complete the lineup, according to Fiba.
When asked if he’s praying for a favorable bracket, Baldwin said he’d rather roll with the punches.
“We can’t do anything about that. We just have to play whoever we get. I don’t live in the world of wishing and hoping and dreaming about things. I am a realist. We get what we get and that’s what we will prepare for,” said Baldwin, adding he doesn’t mind facing former Olympic gold medalist Argentina or Canada, France and Greece.
“It is what it is!”
Baldwin said based on the national team's performance in the last two Fiba Asia championships and the 2014 World Cup in Spain, there is no reason to doubt Gilas' capability to slug it out with the big guns of world basketball.
“We played reasonably well on the big stage over the last few years. There’s no reason to think that we’ll gonna play any worse, and hopefully we’ll play better,” Baldwin said.
“Again, it depends on the health of this squad and all the players we have available and the amount of preparation time. These factors will always be there for the Philippines and they will always be biggest factors. So hopefully we’ll have the maximum amount of preparation time and hope that all our players will be available and healthy,” he added.
As soon as the current Philippine Cup finals ends, Baldwin will once again converge his players to practice prior to the start of the midseason Commissioner’s Cup on February 10.
Asked if he will have enough time to prepare, the straightforward mentor can only hope against hope.
“It is what it is. I will always like more. But it is what it is. It has to be enough,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer to that is, because the PBA’s schedule kinda dictates it.
"According to our policy, we will not ask the players to practice a day before and the day after a game. We’re a little bit caught in the crosshairs by the PBA’s schedule… but we have to do the best we can,” he added.