THE Philippines slams into a tall China side sans two big men who were instrumental in the country’s previous campaigns in the International Basketball Federation Asia Cup, which kicks off on Wednesday at the Nouhad Nawfal Stadium in Beirut, Lebanon.
With the bitter memory of a 67-78 loss to China in the Changsa edition two years ago, the Filipinos plunge into action against a team that has an average height of 6-foot-6 at 6:30 p.m.
Naturalized player Andray Blatche and June Mar Fajardo won’t be around to man the shade, a handicap Gilas Pilipinas Head Coach Chot Reyes wanted to offset with his wards’ big fighting heart.
“It’s a must-win,” Reyes repeatedly said, as the team hopes to land on a pleasant spot in the quarterfinals to avoid high-ranked nations Iran, South Korea, and newcomers Australia and New Zealand.
The Filipinos only had one full practice before flying to Beirut. While there, they also struggled to find their practice venue and lost precious time to do some last-minute tinkering with their game plan against the Chinese.
Fajardo is nursing a right-calf injury but has hinted at possibly suiting up for the nationals, who are bracketed in the so-called Group of Death in Group B.
“Of course, I am willing to play if my condition gets better,” said the 6-foot-10 Fajardo, a three-time Most Valuable Player in the Philippine Basketball Association.
Although Fajardo got injured, Reyes did not replace the San Miguel Beer star in the roster.
But at the moment, Reyes would have to make do with 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar, 6-foot-8 Christian Standhardinger and 6-foot-9 Raymond Almazan.
China, handled by Coach Du Feng, has three 6-foot-10 players backing up 7-foot-1 Han Dejun, a hefty center who averages in double figures with the Liaoning team in the Chinese league.
“We are ready to play eleven,” stressed Reyes, whose wards are pressured to play with more speed and accuracy against a squad that is also known for the same qualities that perfectly compliment its height advantage.
Jayson Castro, Terrence Romeo and Calvin Abueva are bound to provide energy, while Matthew Wright and Roger Pogoy are leaned upon for their three-point shots.
Jio Jalalon, Carl Bryan Cruz and returning Gabe Norwoord are also expected to play tough on defense for Gilas.
After China, the Philippines will battle Iraq on Friday and Qatar on Sunday to complete its elimination-phase assignments.
Group A is composed of Iran, Syria, Jordan and India; Group C is made up of Kazakhstan, Lebanon, South Korea and New Zealand; and Group D has Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Australia.
This marks the first time that Oceania teams Australia and New Zealand are incorporated in the Asian tournament.