MANILA, Philippines — Gilas Pilipinas faces a tall order as it tries to qualify for the next round and chase an Olympic dream when it hosts Group A in the Fiba World Cup 2023 starting August 25.
Sixteen of the top 32 basketball teams are coming to Manila including the powerhouse team and favorite United States as the country hosts the World Cup for the first time since 1978. But Group A will be the most important pool for the Filipinos as they rally behind the national team, which is raring to advance to the next round.
Group A will kick off the global basketball spectacle at Philippine Arena in Bocaue, Bulacan, where the host country tries to break the highest attendance record in a Fiba World Cup game.
Gilas opens its campaign against the Karl-Anthony Towns-led Dominican Republic at 8 p.m. after the match between Italy and Angola before playing its next matches at Smart Araneta Coliseum, where it battles Angola on August 27 and powerhouse Italy on August 29.
Inquirer Sports took a deeper look at Group A in a series of previous for the first round of the group stage held in Manila including the games at Mall of Asia Arena in Groups C and D.
Gilas Pilipinas tries to defy the odds against Italy, Dominican Republic, and Angola to reach the next round and emerge as the best Asian team to clinch an outright berth in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Since returning to the global basketball stage, the Philippines has only won one game — beating Senegal in the 2014 World Cup in Spain — out of 10 matches in its last two appearances, including a winless stint in the 2019 edition in China.
With a chance to return to the Olympic stage since the 1972 edition in Munich, Germany and hosting the Fiba World Cup for the first time since 1978, Gilas is eager to make history in front of its home crowd.
Utah Jazz star Jordan Clarkson is carrying the flag in his first World Cup game for the Filipinos and the third time to don the Philippine colors after the 2018 Asian Games and Asian Qualifier August window last year, averaging 25.0 points, 6.5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds in two games.
Coach Chot Reyes, who is making his second World Cup appearance since steering the team led by Jimmy Alapag and Jayson Castro back to the global stage in 2014, will also pin his hopes on new national team players bannered by Kai Sotto, AJ Edu, JuneMar Fajardo, Scottie Thompson, Jamie Malonzo, CJ Perez, Japeth Aguilar, Roger Pogoy, Calvin Oftana, Chris Newsome, Dwight Ramos, Kiefer and Thirdy Ravena, Ray Parks Jr., and Rhenz Abando.
Gilas, which had different compositions during the World Cup qualifying windows, finished with a 6-4 record, third in Group E of the Asian qualifiers behind New Zealand and Lebanon.
NBA guard Clarkson played his first tune-up game for Gilas, scoring 13 points to set the tone in the team’s 85-62 rout of Ivory Coast in a friendly on Friday night at Philsports Arena, where Fajardo and Edu as well as fit-again players Sotto and Thompson contributed.
Gilas will play two more tune-ups against Montenegro, and Mexico before Reyes and his coaching staff decide on the final 12 for the World Cup starting next week.
The Philippines also had fruitful camps in Europe and China as it finished with a 3-3 record against teams from Estonia, Finland, Ukraine Under-20, and Lithuania selection team last month and won three of their four games in the Heyuan WUS International Basketball Tournament against Iran and Senegal.
All eyes are on three-time NBA All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns as he represents the Dominican Republic for the first time in a decade.
The World No.23 Dominican Republic will parade the Minnesota Timberwolves star, who played 29 games in the NBA last season, averaging 20.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.
The 7-foot forward last played for the national team in the 2013 Americup, teaming up with captain Victor Liz, Andres Felix, Angel Luis Delgado, Jean Montero, Eloy Vargas, LJ Figueroa, Rigoberto Mendoza, Gerardo Suero, Luis Santos, Antonio Pena, Gelvis Solano, Angel Nunez, and Lester Quinones.
Towns was good as advertised in his first friendly game, scoring 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting to lead the Dominican Republic’s 94-88 upset of Canada on Saturday.
The Dominicans finished second behind Canada in Group E of the Americas Qualifiers with a 9-3 record including a 79-75 stunner of last year’s World Cup runner-up Argentina in their final game to qualify to the global basketball stage for the third straight time.
Interestingly, Towns and the Dominican Republic are returning to the Philippines for the first time since 1978 in the former’s maiden appearance of the World Cup.
The Dominicans will miss NBA players Al Horford of the Boston Celtics and Chris Duarte of the Sacramento Kings but Towns’ addition gave them a shot in the arm ahead of facing the Gilas Pilipinas on August 25 at Philippine Arena.
In the 2019 World Cup, the Dominican Republic reached the second round after upsetting Germany but finished 16th after losing both its second-round games.
Angola may be the lowest-ranked team in Pool A but it remains a threat with its airtight defense.
The No. 41 ranked team in the World, led by NBA big man Bruno Fernando, is making its sixth consecutive World Cup appearance and ninth overall. Angola finished second in the 2023 African World Cup qualifiers behind Cote d’Ivoire with identical 8-2 records.
The Black Antelopes qualified this year after limiting their opponents to just 60.5 points a game in the African qualifiers.
In Angola’s ninth World Cup appearance, coach Josep Claros will be banking on Atlanta Hawks center Fernando, Jilson Bango, Silvio Sousa Still, and Childe Dundao to go deeper in this year’s global tournament, seeking to surpass their 27th place in China last 2019.
However, the African team has been struggling recently as it finished with a 2-3 record in tuneup games in Jordan last July and fell to Japan in a pocket tournament, where it will also battle France and Slovenia in friendlies, five days ago.
In facing the Philippines, history is on the side of Angola as the Black Antelopes handed a heartbreaking 84-81 defeat to Gilas, led by Fajardo, Ravena, and Perez in overtime to win one of its three matches in Group C of the 2019 Fiba World Cup.
Italy emerges as the team to beat in Group A with its stacked roster led by Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, who emerged as the squad’s reliable scorer in their past three major tournaments in the qualifiers, EuroBasket, and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
In its bid to return to the top four for the first time since the 1978 edition in Manila, the Azzurri is bringing the 6-foot-7 shooter Fontecchio, who was instrumental for the Jazz in his first NBA season, averaging 6.3 points on 33.0 percent three-point shooting in 52 games played.
Besides the 27-year-old winger, Italy coach Gianmarco Pozzecco is also banking on the lone holdover from its 2019 World Cup team Luigi Datome, who played for the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in the NBA for two seasons, as well as Marco Spissu, Nicolo Melli, Gabriele Procida, Matteo Spagnolo, Achille Polonara, Giampaolo Ricci, and Stefano Tonut.
The Italians will miss Washington Wizards forward Danilo Gallinari, who suffered an ACL injury before the 2022-23 NBA Season, and former Golden State Warriors player Nico Mannion but the core of the squad remained intact, which finished 8-2 in the qualifiers behind reigning World Cup champion Spain.
Italy is looking to surpass its 10th-place finish in the 2019 World Cup in China, where it bombed out of contention in the second round finishing third in Group J behind Spain and Serbia.
The Azzurri blasted Gilas, bannered by holdovers Fajardo, Ravena, and Perez, with a 108-62 blowout in the preliminary round.
Italy swept five tune-up games at home before facing Brazil and China in two more friendlies ahead of their World Cup campaign in Manila.
Final 12: Marco Spissu, Luigi Datome, Mouhamet Diouf, Simone Fontecchio, Steano Tonut, Nicolo Melli, Alessandro Pajola, Achille Polonara, Gabriele Procida, Giampaolo Ricci, Luca Severini, Matteo Spagnolo
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