STRONG Group banks on the formidable trio of Nick Young, Shabazz Muhammad and Renaldo Balkman. — CHARLES TIU IG PAGE

STRONG Group gets a baptism of fire against the United Arab Emirates (UAE) national team in the opener of the 32nd Dubai International Basketball Championship at the Al-Nasr Club Hall today.

Game time is at 11 p.m. (Manila time) with the Philippine contingent under the watch of College of St. Benilde coach Charles Tiu looking to shrug off fatigue after landing in the bustling Middle Eastern city just yesterday.

“It’s a short turnaround plus jet lag. Tight schedule for us but hopefully we can find a way,” said Mr. Tiu as Strong Group banks on the formidable trio of Nick Young, Shabazz Muhammad and Renaldo Balkman.

Strong Group, owned by former Ateneo guard and now Converge assistant manager in the PBA Jacob Lao, is seeking to replicate the perfect championship run of Mighty Sports in the 2020 Dubai edition before the pandemic.

“We’re looking forward to playing different international teams and we’re excited to showcase our talents for our fans in Dubai and we hope we can live up to their expectations and defend the crown that we came here for,” said Mr. Lao.

Out to backstop the three imports of Strong Group, who are all former NBA first round picks, is a bevy of local standouts led by NCAA MVP Will Gozum of St. Benilde and Jerom Lastimosa of Adamson.

Completing the squad are Ateneo’s BJ Andrade and Inand Fornillos, University of the Philippines’ JD Cagulangan, Gilas Pilipinas’ Francis Lopez, ex-La Salle anchor Justine Baltazar, St. Benilde’s Miguel Oczon and Fil-American prospect Sedrick Barefield.

La Salle and Gilas forward Kevin Quiambao complete the squad in place of Ange Kouame, who is nursing dengue.

Strong Group will also test the mettle of Al-Wahda from Syria, Dynamo from Lebanon and Al Nasr from Libya in the preliminaries of the overseas tilt slated until Feb. 5.

The Philippine squad Mighty Sports, led then by Mr. Balkman and ex-Gilas cager Andray Blatche, capped a 7-0 record  of the Dubai tournament in 2020 and became the first non-Middle Eastern champion team. — John Bryan Ulanday