In sports, winning typically cures everything.
Victories lead to a thinking that the status quo works and marching ahead can lead to a sense of false comfort that can be the enemy of progress.
The Philippines opened the February qualifying window for the 2023 FIBA World Cup with an 88-64 win over India, overcoming a slow start behind the strong efforts of Dwight Ramos (17 points) and Thirdy Ravena (15 points).
A greater test, though, came two nights later against New Zealand, where the Tall Blacks’ nine 3-pointers opened up their inside game and carried them to an 88-63 win. Moreover, their 54-34 advantage on the rebounds came as they were relentless on the boards in an effort to match the physicality of the Philippines and negated the combined 41 points of Ramos and Ravena.
The signs of how hasty things came together for Gilas were evident, as missed layups and some careless passes were on display. Instances of plays slowing down also occurred, and it goes to show how the games are a totally different animal even with all the practices teams put in. It helped that Gilas opened the window against India, who are ranked 80th in the world.
The change in system has seemed to affect Ange Kouame the most, as he did not look comfortable during the earlier and more meaningful parts of both games. He clearly thrives in a system like that of his college coach Tab Baldwin and the blown assignments and missed rebounds provide indications that he remains dazed and confused even if he is capable of strutting his wares against India and holding up against New Zealand.
It was clear that Gilas head coach Chot Reyes wanted to get him more involved against New Zealand and he picked up his energy as the game went on. However, it’s also on the coaching staff to help him manage that energy as they wouldn’t want things to get chippy and would rather have it translate to something productive on the court.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t any positive takeaways from this, as Gilas’ activity especially with its perimeter defense remains something to build on. They had 22 steals through two games, which contributed to the 18 and 19 turnovers they forced India and New Zealand to commit, respectively. Energy and effort are rarely an issue with the Philippines but winning against more talented and experienced teams will require greater tactical maturity.
Regardless of what happens to Gilas in the coming months, Ramos and Ravena have to at least be in consideration for international tournaments, their schedules and teams be willing.
Their time in Japan’s B.League was well worth it as both took turns in carrying a sizable load of the offense. Ramos consistently answered the bell when Gilas needed a bucket, while Ravena’s five 3-pointers (on 12 attempts) over both games points to a burgeoning confidence in a facet of his game critics have knocked him for. Beyond those, the confidence with which they played despite being among the younger players on the squad is something that will come in handy when Gilas needs a shot in gut-check time.
Robert Bolick and Kib Montalbo deserve some consideration for this as well as the former is a more than capable playmaker, while the latter can provide solid effort and production even in spurts.
Questions remain, however, for the frontcourt as apart from Kouame, age and injuries are among the key factors affecting the rest of the players in consideration. Kelly Williams is already 40 years old, while June Mar Fajardo continues to work his way back to MVP form after suffering a fractured right tibia two years ago. Troy Rosario has just recovered from a spinal shock injury and has still been feeling the effects of a dislocated left pinky finger he suffered from the 2021 Honda PBA Philippine Cup Finals.
On the whole, using the eligible core of the TNT Tropang Giga won’t cut it, especially when many of the players will be committed to the succeeding PBA conferences and will likely feel the wear and tear from those battles.
Moreover, the fluidity of the situation with Gilas in general should be resolved, especially with a major tournament a year away. Will Tab Baldwin return once the UAAP concludes this year? Which players will be available? How will the pandemic situation be over the next few months? These questions will be at the forefront of discussion over the next few months.
The results of last weekend should inspire some confidence within Gilas Pilipinas, but the band-aid solutions only point to how the shortcomings of the past continue to serve as blueprints rather than cautionary tales.
Time was clearly not on the national team’s side for this window and they’ll be the first to admit it even with the results of this weekend. Nonetheless, there remains enough time to prepare for the 2023 FIBA World Cup (which the Philippines is hosting) and it starts now.