Gilas Pilipinas will face its biggest challenge as it takes on the Boomers, the Australian men's national team, in the second window of the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers on February 22.
Ever since FIBA included Australia and New Zealand in the Asian basketball zone in 2015, the competition in the region has changed dramatically. The Philippines already squared off with New Zealand in the 2016 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but has yet to face Australia, which is currently ranked by FIBA as the 11th best team in the world.
"On the surface, it's just basketball and it's just another opportunity for us to learn," longtime Gilas member Gabe Norwood said about the second window. "I think the format and what's at stake are a little bit different now also."
The last time the Philippines went up against a country with seemingly similar insurmountable odds was when Gilas took on fifth-ranked Argentina in the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Gilas lost that battle but stood toe-to-toe with one of the world's toughest teams. Norwood himself had an unforgettable moment when he threw down a vicious dunk over then NBA player Luis Scola. Aside from Argentina, the Philippines also crossed paths with Croatia and Puerto Rico, all top-ranked teams, in that same tournament.
Australia won't be parading NBA players like Patty Mills or Ben Simmons, but that doesn't mean that their other players won't be as competitive or as formidable. Nevertheless, Gilas is undeterred by their quest to enter the World Cup once again.
"To be honest, it doesn't matter to me," Andray Blatche said on facing a team without NBA talent. "That is basketball. You have to go out and compete regardless of who's on the court."
The Gilas program has grown by leaps and bounds ever since their 2013 FIBA Asia Championship campaign that booked them a trip to Spain. Gone are the days of being intimidated or pushed around by the likes of Iran, Korea, or China. In effect, the same goes for any other high-ranked team, including the one they're facing next.
"Those days are over and done with. I think we crossed that threshold when we qualified and played in the World Cup," Norwood confidently said. "Everybody in this gym knows we're world class now just like Australia is. So we're gonna go out and play as hard as we can."
Aside from the Australian national team, probably the biggest hurdles that Gilas is currently facing are time and personnel. Gilas has only recently started their daily practices with only a couple of days left before leaving. And to make matters worse, a lot of players have had to deal with nagging injuries, including Troy Rosario and Mac Belo.
"I'm actually surprised that we wouldn't have two-a-days, but I know that a lot of the guys are still on their season," Blatche said. "They also have time dedicated to the other teams, that's why we have to take each practice seriously."
Norwood elaborated on their current situation.
"It's unfortunate but at the same time, it causes urgency for us. We don't get a chance to relax, we have to make the most of every day so that's not a bad thing either. We've learned to really adapt into the system with the time given to us and we make the most of it," Norwood said.
A loss won't necessarily hurt the Philippine's chances in the qualifiers, having already won two games in the first window, but that doesn't make the encounter any less important. A win, however, would send a strong and loud statement to the entire region that, just as Norwood said, Philippine basketball is world-class.