The Philippine men's basketball team is set to see action in the preliminary round in Group D and will be going up against Kazakhstan and seven-time champion China. But let's focus on the first opponents of the Filipinos: the Kazakhs.
Thrust into a virtual must-win situation right off the bat, coach Yeng Guiao's charges must dispose of the rising Asian squad that has also qualified for the second round of the ongoing FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers and with a team of old reliables blended with young upstarts, Kazakhstan could give the Philippines a stiff challenge when they clash on Thursday, August 16 at 11 a.m. Manila time at the smaller GBK Basketball Hall in Jakarta.
Kazakhstan will still have on tap a few veterans that were visitors to Manila during the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship that finished eighth in that edition of the tournament.
There are two notable absences from this roster in naturalized American point guard Jerry Johnson and perpetual skipper Anton Ponomarev. It appears that Kazakhstan's Asian Games sortie is intended to bring the youngsters up to speed with only Nikolay Bazhkin, Rustam Murzagarliev, Rustam Yargaliev and Alexander Zhigulin remaining from their 2013 squad.
Bazhkin played sparingly in that tournament but has developed into a legitimate perimeter threat while Murzagaliev and Yargeliev have turned into decent combo guards with deep range. Zhigulin-Ponomarev's chief back-up-now starts at the pivot spot as the Kazakhstan transition is now seriously lacking in height.
The playmaking chores now fall into the hands of Azim Yagodkin and Shaim Kuanov and if the results of the first round of the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers are to be the basis, this pair has also been doing well in piloting the team without Johnson-who has retired from international competition and is still playing for BC Astana in the Kazakhstan professional circuit.
The key is how coach Mikhail Karpenko can infuse the necessary technology to his young core before facing the Philippines.
Karpenko, who has only been involved with Kazakh basketball for the past year after coaching in the Russian leagues (lastly for Ataman), is dead set on improving the basketball culture in the country and since taking over from the sacked Kostas Flevarakis in BC Astana.
"As national team coach, I want to change soon (the competitive mentality of Kazakh players)," he said in an interview with VTB-League.com. "More competition means better players."
And this stint in the Asian Games has him resting his veterans for the second round grind and giving him an opportunity to work on his youthful prospects.
This gives the Philippine team a good chance to pounce at the Kazakhs who may see this tournament as a glorified workout.
As far as the guards go, Murzagaliev is still the big cheese; he shoots excellently, he can create situations where the wingmen get involved and is shifty enough to bait fouls from the interior defenders of the opposition. Yargaliev thrives on penetrations but is also a very good passer. The offense emanates from these two grizzled warriors while Zhigulin is still a space eater and will try his best to impose his will underneath.
However, the Philippines has one thing working from them: experience.
The Rain or Shine alone-Chris Tiu, James Yap, Gabe Norwood, Beau Belga and Raymond Almazan-can stand toe to toe with the Kazakhs (whose tallest players are 6'9"). Their chemistry can have them erecting an early lead which the bench-perhaps composed of Stanley Pringle, Paul Lee, Poy Erram (at small forward), Christian Standhardinger and Asi Taulava-keeping the rally aspirations at bay.
Of course, Guiao is a genius at coming up with a game plan and his scouts led by three-time PBA Coach of the Year Ryan Gregorio and present Elastopainters mentor Caloy Garcia will have recognized that their young opponents will still be groping for form sans their regular veterans.
This is not a clear indication that the Philippines will have a cakewalk against the Kazakhs, but the challenge will be less atrocious than if they sent their FIBA World Cup Qualifiers squad in full.