THE PHILIPPINES and Korea are up for key matches in next week’s FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers third window in Clark, Pampanga. — FIBA

By Michael Angelo S. Murillo, Senior Reporter

ACTION in the third window of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup Qualifiers kick off next week in a “bubble” setup at Clark City in Angeles, Pampanga, with the Philippines and Korea up for key matches.

The two top teams in Group A, Gilas Pilipinas (3-0) and Korea (2-0) look to make full use of their scheduled games in the competition, happening from June 16 to 20, to solidify their spots in the Asia Cup happening later this year.

Gilas has three matches in the window while the Koreans will be busier with four games on tap.

For the competition, the Philippines will be going all-cadet as part of the long-term program of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) to sustain the development of the national team.

Majority of the pool of players for Gilas played in the second window of the qualifier in November in Jordan where the team beat Thailand twice.

They include Dwight Ramos, Matt Nieto, Mike Nieto, Isaac Go, Rey Suerte, Will Navarro, Jaydee Tungcab, Dave Ildefonso, Justine Baltazar and Javi Gomez de Liaño.

Added were Jordan Heading, Tzaddy Rangel, SJ Belangel, RJ Abarrientos, Carl Tamayo, Jason Credo, Geo Chiu and Lebron Lopez.

Also set to see action is newly naturalized player Angelo Kouame, who the SBP believes will be a big boost to the team.

“As we assembled potential naturalized players, we looked at those who can be great rebounders, great locker room players, great rim protectors, and guys that play with a lot of energy and will be great teammates, and I believe Ange Kouame fits all of that,” SBP Gilas program director Tab Baldwin was quoted as saying.

International basketball campaigner Kai Sotto is currently in the country and signified his desire to play for the national team but his status for next week’s competition remains to be determined.

Gilas opens its campaign on June 16 against Korea. It then returns on June 18 versus Indonesia (1-2) and on June 20 versus Korea anew.

The Koreans, for their part, are out to make up for lost time.

As per the FIBA website, the Korea squad is to be led by naturalized player Ra GunA (former Philippine Basketball Association import Ricardo Ratliffe), Lee DaeSung and Lee JungHyun.

It will also feature highly touted prospects Lee Hyunjung and Yeo JunSeok.

Korea last played in the first window of the qualifiers, beating Thailand, 93-86, on Feb. 23, 2020 in Seoul. Kim Jongkyu led the Koreans in the win with 19 points.

The team did not play in the second window in November over coronavirus concerns, forcing FIBA to set possible penalties for the team which could affect its ranking points in the grouping. But considering where Korea is at, the penalties are expected to have minimal impact.

Thailand (0-4) is the lone team still winless in Group A.

Qualifier format has the top two teams in each group qualifying directly to Asia Cup 2021. The six last-placed teams in each group are eliminated.

Meanwhile, the six third-placed teams in each group will then play in a separate qualifying tournament. Teams will be placed into two different groups of three teams. The top two teams of those respective groups will then lock in their spots at Asia Cup 2021.

Aside from Group A, the Clark bubble will also host games in Groups B and C. All the matches will be played behind closed doors as part of health and safety protocols.