HOW Day 1 pans out will pretty much decide the fate of Gilas Pilipinas at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Foshan, China.
The winner of tonight's match between the Philippine men's national basketball team and Italy will most likely advance to the next round, unless Group D powerhouse Serbia stumbles or the underdog Angola overachieves.
No wonder Gilas coach Yeng Guiao admitted in a previous interview that beating the Italians is top priority. Even President Rodrigo Duterte acknowledged how big of a threat the Azzurri is, saying, "Wala. Walang laban. We will lose dito. Italy, ang lalaki ng mga g*g*ng 'yan."
While the president is right about the Europeans having the upper hand in terms of average height (6'7"), Gilas (average height: 6'4") actually boasts a taller frontline with 6'11" Andray Blatche, 6'10" June Mar Fajardo, and 6'10" Japeth Aguilar.
If we're being honest, though, size isn't our national team's biggest problem when it comes to facing Italy.
The Italians present multiple challenges to the new-look PH squad, aside from the obvious legitimate NBA talent — Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli — on their roster. On the flipside, the Euro crew has several holes with regard to its current state that are waiting to be exposed by Coach Yeng and his boys in the decisive matchup.
Treat this as last-minute scouting report on Gilas' most important basketball rival in this year's World Cup:
After Italy failed to reach the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Romeo Sacchetti was named head coach for the 2019 European qualifiers. His patented run-and-gun system helped the country finish on top of Group D in the first round with a 6-4 win-loss record. The second phase saw them go 8-4 in Group J and end up as runner-up to Lithuania, but still made it to the World Cup.
The free-flowing Italian offense translated to 78.3 points and 10.3 three-pointers made — out of 27.5 attempts for 37.6 percent — per game in the second round. Throughout the 12 matches, 2015 Italian Supercup MVP Amedeo della Valle emerged as the main guy, leading them in scoring (17.8 ppg, fourth overall), threes (3.5), and minutes (25.4).
The 6'7" Awudu Abass was the only other double-digit scorer (10.3 ppg, 1.7 3 ptm), with former NBA player and team captain Luigi Datome (16 ppg, 6 rebounds per game, 2 3 ptm) each suiting up just twice.
All eyes will be on Italy's talented forward rotation, although it would be wrong to overlook their pro-caliber backcourt. Allesandro Gentile, who was drafted 53rd overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014 but didn't play for them, only joined the national team late last year and has already established himself as a solid contributor (9 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 19.2 mpg in six games).
Meanwhile, Belinelli's reunion with the San Antonio Spurs proved successful; he averaged 10.5 markers and 1.9 treys in 23 minutes off the bench across 79 outings.
The Gilas guards have to offset the size disadvantage with speed, particularly in chasing shooters and playing the passing lanes. The Italians are at their best when they share the wealth (16.1 assists to 10.3 turnovers per game), so Coach Yeng needs to figure out how they can disrupt the opposition's ball movement.
This is where CJ Perez and Roger Pogoy's youthful energy and two-way value come in, as insurance to aging stoppers Gabe Norwood, 34, and Mark Barroca, 33. Guiao can also utilize Aguilar and Troy Rosario's mobility to switch on Italy's supersized perimeter players.
Unless the PH team made drastic improvements to its three-point shooting — 7.6 3 ptm out of 24.3 attempts for 31.2% in 12 games of the Asian qualifiers — it would make more sense to keep pounding the ball inside against the smaller Italian bigs.
The tallest member of Italy's froncourt is Amedeo Tessitori at 6'10", while their only player listed as center is 6'7" Paul Biligha. If Blatche can avoid his point-forward tendencies and Fajardo sustains his championship momentum, the Gilas frontline can assert its dominance in the paint and put pressure on the opposing undersized bigs and star tweeners.
More banging bodies mean more free throws, which the Filipinos should have worked on (14.4 made out 20.9 attempts for 68.9 percent) to complement their solid two-point field-goal percentage (21.8 made out of 43.4 attempts for 50.3 percent).
After an impressive run in the European qualifiers, Italy is currently in its most vulnerable state. The Azzurri lost its last six tuneup games and went winless in the Acropolis (Greece) and AusTiger (China) tournaments.
The Italians suffered 32-point and 20-point drubbings at the hands of the Serbians and Greeks, respectively, in the Acropolis Cup. They fared relatively better in the AusTiger Tournament with Gallinari and had close losses to Serbia (65-71), France (80-82), and New Zealand (82-88). It will up to Coach Yeng and his wards to find the chinks in their slumping opponent's armor.
Italy's World Cup campaign boils down to which version of their best player, Danilo Gallinari, shows up. The 6'8" forward had a career year (19.8 ppg 6.1 rpg, 46.3 percent shooting) with the overachieving Los Angeles Clippers last season, before he was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder this summer.
At the same time, it was reported earlier this month that Gallo underwent an appendectomy and had to miss a couple of days in the Italian buildup. Despite suiting up for the most number of games in a season since his sophomore year (68), he still missed 14 outings mostly due to ankle issues.
His health has prevented the 31-year-old from making that superstar breakthrough in the NBA. Whether Gallinari leads Italy to the quarterfinals or not depends on how fit he is right now, as well as his fit with an Italian core that has been together for two years.