MANILA, Philippines—Smart Gilas Pilipinas leaves Tuesday for the Fiba Asia Championship in Wuhan,China, needing to win the continental tournament to secure an outright berth in the 2012 London Olympics.
Coach Rajko Toroman admitted the national team hasn’t achieved peak form yet, and whipping it to form will be his primary goal during the early group stages of the 16-nation tournament firing off on Thursday.
Bunched in Group D with powerhouse China in the opening round, the Filipinos will start their campaign for the lone continental Olympic spot against United Arab Emirates on September 15.
They take on title favorite China the next day and Bahrain on Saturday before taking a one-day break.
Toroman said the three games plus possible matches with Japan, Jordan and Syria in the second round should help Smart Gilas attain fighting form going to the knockout phase.
“The most important thing is that the players understand the system,” said Toroman, who steered Iran to the 2007 Fiba Asia crown and an Olympic appearance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Serbian mentor hopes to weave the same magic on the Philippine five, which last played in the 1972Olympics in Munich, Germany.
“I’m very optimistic. Like I’ve said, we’ll not be on the level that we wanted to achieve in the beginning of the tournament,” he said after the team’s final practice at the Meralco Gym Monday.
“But as the tournament progresses, our condition will certainly improve.”
Smart Gilas mainstays Japeth Aguilar, team captain Chris Tiu, JV Casio, co-captain Mark Barroca, Chris Lutz, Marcio Lassiter, Mac Baracael, Dylan Ababou, Jason Ballesteros and naturalized center Marcus Douthit remain upbeat about the team’s chances.
“It will not be easy but we surely are sending a better and stronger team,” said Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas vice chair and Maynilad president Ricky Vargas. “This is the best SBP can put together under the circumstances.
“One thing I’m sure of, our players will give everything they’ve got for flag and country. We might spring a few surprises as underdogs against the perennial favorites with a bit of luck.”
Adding strength and stability to the team are PBA stars Asi Taulava of Meralco and Talk ‘N Text aces Jimmy Alapag, Kelly Williams and Ranidel De Ocampo.
“Our goal is to reach the semifinals,” said Toroman. “From there, we’re two steps away from the gold medal. Anything’s possible.”
Smart Gilas is looking to win at least four of its six games in the group stages to avoid getting paired with defending champion Iran in the quarterfinals.
Toroman said the Iranians, who ruled the past two editions of the Asian championship, will be fielding their strongest lineup ever.
Hamed Haddadi of the Memphis Grizzlies, forward Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, wingman Hamed Afagh, playmaker Mehdi Kamrani and prized recruit Arzalan Kazemi of Rice University, the first Iranian to play in NCAA Division I, form the Iranian core.
Smart Gilas, formed three years ago with the ultimate objective of qualifying for the Olympics, capped its preparation with a pair of tuneup games against Qatar and Jordan last week.
Also joining the team in Wuhan are team manager Frankie Lim, operations head Butch Antonio, assistant coaches Ryan Gregorio, Jude Roque, Charles Tiu, D’Jalma Arnedo, Oliver Bunyi and Chot Reyes, trainer Jimbo Saret, therapist Albert Rolle and consultant Andrew Teh.
“We have some minor injuries,” said Toroman. “JV is still not 100 percent (knee) and Marcus didn’t practice (inflammed stomach) together with Marcio (bruised knee).
“But I think it will be fixed come Wuhan. Game by game, we are improving and day by day, things are looking better.”