On Tuesday, SMART-Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes named 16 PBA players that will form the core of the pool of the national program. In the list are Jimmy Alapag, Jayson Castro, Ryan Reyes, LA Tenorio, Alex Cabagnot, James Yap, Gary David, Larry Fonacier, Marcio Lassiter, Gabe Norwood, Arwind Santos, Marc Pingris, Ranidel De Ocampo, Kelly Williams, Sonny Thoss, and Enrico Villanueva.
Villanueva’s selection comes as a major surprise. The burly center, who had a stint in Reyes’ national pool in 2005, was selected despite a lack of playing time he has been getting from Barangay Ginebra. But because of the dearth of big men who can match up against the powerful centers and power forwards of our Asian neighbors, Villanueva obviously would merit consideration. Whether he would be chosen in the final 12-man list is a different question.
The lineup shows Reyes’ preference for “small ball” anchored on a fast game. It’s hard to question the logic, since even if the Philippine team included a lot of big players, they’d still be looking over their heads against taller competition. It’s best to just focus on our strengths and make this work for us, and perhaps conceal our own weak spots.
Reyes might have memories of the 1998 Asian Games, wherein he served as an assistant for Tim Cone in the Centennial Team. The squad was beefed up by several big men, including 7-foot-1 EJ Feihl, 6-foot-9 Marlou Aquino, 6-foot-9 Andy Seigle, 6-foot-6 Dennis Espino, and 6-foot-6 Jun Limpot. Despite those big men, the team got annihilated by a speedy South Korea squad, which relegated the Philippines to an early showdown against China in the semifinals. The Centennial Team made a gallant stand against the Chinese, losing by just nine points, but the loss to South Korea still stings.
In his selections, Reyes also underscored the value of perimeter defense in the international game. Dating back to the 1960s, the Philippine team always featured players who could defend the opposing team’s leading scorer. The likes of Ed Ocampo, Freddie Webb, Robert Jaworski, Larry Mumar, Rogelio “Tembong” Melencio, among others took their respective turns against elite scorers such as Shin Dong Pa of South Korea. Ron Jacobs’ Northern Consolidated Cement national teams from the ’80s had Jeff Moore taking the lead defensively, while Jaworski paraded Dante Gonzalgo in the 1990 Asian Games as his enforcer against players like South Korea’s Lee Chung Hee and Hur Jae.
Reyes has won three of the last four PBA titles with Talk ‘N Text, and he probably won’t tamper much with the formula. It makes sense that he would choose six players from the Tropang Texters to beef up his squad.
It would be a team built on outside shooting anchored on their point guards who are capable of penetrating the lane and dishing off the kickout pass – not unlike how the South Koreans do it. Jong Uichico utilized this style in the 2002 Busan Asian Games through guards Olsen Racela and Jeffrey Cariaso with shooters like Dondon Hontiveros and Kenneth Duremdes anticipating the kickout. That team narrowly missed a chance at the title game after a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer, again to South Korea. To beat bigger teams like China, Iran, Jordan and Lebanon, the key factors are to pile up easy points through fastbreak plays and a multitude of three-pointers from the arc.
Reyes is also wary of how the Middle Eastern teams have kept bullying our small guards in recent years. The presence of Norwood and Ryan Reyes would give Reyes the flexibility of having two back up point guards who are big enough to go face to face with Iran, Jordan and Lebanon. Immediately after our fourth place finish in Wuhan last year, SBP President Manny Pangilinan voiced out his opinion of the team’s need for taller guards. Norwood and Reyes may be what the boss ordered.
Fans obviously wonder why only two centers were chosen. Thoss is arguably the best local center in the PBA today and it would be his chance for redemption from an otherwise lackluster performance in the 2009 FIBA Asia Championship in Tianjin. But with a naturalized player expected to log at least 35 minutes per game, Thoss will probably get a couple of minutes to relieve the naturalized center or be used as power forward to relieve Williams when ranged against big teams like China and Iran.
The thing is, is that the Philippines has never been the tallest team in this region, even from way back. We’ve had undersized centers like Manny Paner, Big Boy Reynoso and Benjie Paras who have fared well against their bigger counterparts. Whether we can overcome the likes of Haddadi or Yi Jinlian remains to be seen.
Reyes’ past experience in Tokushima, Japan in the 2007 FIBA Asia Championship will serve him well. Being bracketed in the so-called Group of Death against Jordan, China and Iran in the eliminations was difficult by itself. But it probably won’t happen again, especially if Manila finally gets a chance to host the tournament after 40 years.
More than this, Reyes is looking at the strong points of that team and is expected to continue using these. Let’s hope that we finally make history again and regain the Asian title we last won in 1986.