DOHA (21ST FIBA Asia Champions Cup): When they entered the fray at the 2009 FIBA Asia Champions Cup at Jakarta, they were a bunch of energetic youngsters eager to learn and upgrade their skills under a legendary coach.
An unassuming attitude and a fearless approach took the Smart Gilas of Philippines to an impressive fifth place finish at Jakarta.
A win against the mighty Al Riyadi Beirut in the preliminary phase made the discerning sit up as coach Toroman Rajko – fresh from his astounding stint with the Iranian National Team – used the Filipino effervescence to catch the imagination of the FIBA Asia community.
Only – to borrow Rajko's own words at Jakarta – “a worst performance at the worst possible time” stopped the Smart Gilas from a semifinal finish on debut last year. An aberration Rajko hopes to erase this year.
“The aim is to enter the semifinals,” Rajkov told S Mageshwaran of FIBA Asia during the team's build-up to the 21st FIBA Asia Champions Cup.
“But it won't be easy, because the competition is much tougher,” the soft spoken Serbian coach added.
Smart Gilas are pitted against, defending champions Mahram of Iran, Qatari hosts and former champions Al Rayyan, Kazakhstani league winners Astana Tigers and dark horses Duhok of Iraq in Group A of the preliminary round.
Smart Gilas recently drafted the 202-cm Serbian Milan Vucicevic as the import for the Champions Cup, with their last year's 'foreigner' – American 'CJ' Giles now donning the colours of Lebanese club Al Riyadi Beirut.
“We are a very young and talented team. We are improving tactically, but we need a strong inside player,” Rajko said.
“I think we have improved a lot from Jakarta. We are going good and we are getting stronger every day,” Rajko said.
“As I have always maintained, this is the team for the future of Philippines basketball. So we cannot afford to rush. At the same time, we can't afford any mistakes either.
“We have our plan and program. We want to play as many games as possible, in different parts of the world. These games will help us get the necessary experience and mental toughness for the future.”
Smart Gilas open their campaign against hosts Al Rayyan on Sunday, the second day of the competition.
With sizable Filipino expat community present in Doha, Rajko's boys are assured of 'home-like' atmosphere at the Al Rayyan Stadium. Will that translate into better results?
Watch this space!