There’s only one word to describe Gilas Pilipinas’ road to the Paris Olympics: Tough.
Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president Al Panlilio and Gilas Pilipinas coaches Chot Reyes and Tim Cone all agreed that the road back to the Olympics will not be easy following the draw that was held on Tuesday morning (Manila time) at the International Basketball Federation headquarters in Switzerland.
After losing their chance to make it to the Summer Game via the FIBA Basketball World Cup last August in Manila, the Filipinos were drawn with European superpowers Latvia and Georgia in Group A while Group B will have Brazil, Cameroon and Montenegro in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament set in Riga, Latvia from 2 to 7 July.
Other qualifying stages will be held in Spain, Greece and Puerto Rico.
Lebanon, Angola, Finland, Poland and Bahamas will play in Valencia; Slovenia, New Zealand, Croatia, Egypt and Dominican Republic will compete in Piraeus; and Mexico, Ivory Coast, Lithuania, Italy and Bahrain will see action in San Juan.
Only four teams from the OQT will join the eight other qualifiers in the Summer Games set from 27 July to 11 August at the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Paris.
“Tough,” Reyes told Daily Tribune when asked about the Filipinos’ chances to book a return flight to the Olympics for the first time since 1972.
“It’s a tough group, but we will try our very best,” Panlilio said.
Cone, the frontrunner in the head coaching role after leading the Filipinos to a historic gold medal in the 19th Asian Games last October, also admitted that making it to the Summer Games will not be easy — but still possible. “It’s a very tough group,” Cone said. “Very tough, but not impossible.”
Latvia will be a tough nut to crack as it will parade National Basketball Association stars Kristaps Porzingis of the Boston Celtics and Davis Bertans of the Oklahoma City Thunder as well as Andrejs Grazulis, Rolands Smits and Rodions Kurucs.
Grazulis, who campaigns professionally in Italy, emerged as the top scorer of the Latvian squad with 14.1 points per game in the previous World Cup, where they finished fifth behind the United States.
Bertans, for his part, averaged 14 points per game while the 6-foot-10 Smits, who plays for Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas, posted 13 points per outing.
“Latvia at home is very, very strong with four NBA players, including Porzingis. They were the surprise team and placed fifth in the World Cup,” Cone, who served as Reyes’ assistant coach in the World Cup, said.
Cone is also not looking past Georgia, which finished 16th in the World Cup, eight notches ahead of the Philippines.
“Georgia had a great run in the World Cup, making it to the second round before losing to eventual champion Germany and Australia. It’s going to be very, very tough for us.”