LEO Austria makes his coaching debut with San Miguel Beer in a game against Rain or Shine in the PBA Philippine Cup on Tuesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Austria, who led San Miguel to the Asean Basketball League (ABL) championship last year, is now tasked to turn around a Beermen side that has underachieved under a long line of former coaches.
The last was Todd Purves who spent two unproductive conferences handling the Beermen as an 'active consultant,' bringing the team to a pair of fifth-place finishes in last season’s Commissioner’s Cup and Governors Cup.
If he is to succeed, Austria knows June Mar Fajardo should be central to his plans.
The 6-10 Fajardo is coming off an MVP year in the pro league and is expected to be even better following a confidence-boosting stint with Gilas Pilipinas in the Fiba World Cup and Asian Games.
“Most of our plays naman naka-design sa kanya (Fajardo) eh. Siya ang laging priority namin,” said Austria.
However, the 56-year-old coach also knows that his perimeter gunners like Arwind Santos, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz and even rookie Ronald Pascual should be able to make their shots to make life easy for Fajardo.
“With June Mar, marami kaming puwedeng gawin eh, saka ang play naman namin, di lang lahat sa kanya, kung maka-set up kami ng maayos na screen, makaka-open kami for our shooters,” he said.
Interestingly, Austria will be facing his former team in his San Miguel debut. The former Adamson coach handled the Asian Coating franchise when it was still known as Welcoat from 2006 to 2008.
Meantime, Rain or Shine will be missing defensive specialist Gabe Norwood, who is only due to arrive on Tuesday after taking a vacation in the United States.
Coach Yeng Guiao said Norwood had asked for a two-week break after spending the offseason playing for Gilas Pilipinas in the Fiba World Cup and Asian Games.
“The team is intact so at least, we expect the team to be in the semis or even head to the Finals,” Guiao said, who guided the Elasto Painters to finals stints in the Philippine Cup and the Governors Cup.
Guiao expects the team to have problems at the post, aware that Fajardo’s stellar stint with Gilas as a back-up center has made the 24-year-old Cebuano big man even better.
“Eh dati na kaming maliit, at lalo pa nga kaming lumiit dahil nawala na si Larry Rodriguez (who was traded in the offseason), but we hope to make it up with our experience,” he added.