Feature | Basketball

Kai Sotto and Gilas Pilipinas get a new lease on life on their Olympic hopes

After initially failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, the Philippines men's national basketball team will get one more chance to secure a spot at the Games in Japan through the Olympic basketball qualification tournament in Serbia.

By Will Imbo ·

The Philippines haven't qualified for an Olympic basketball tournament since Munich 1972 (where they finished 13th), and up until February 2021, looked to have missed out on their chances of heading to Tokyo as well.

But with New Zealand’s withdrawal from the men’s Olympic qualification tournament, Gilas Pilipinas now have a second chance to earn a spot at Tokyo 2020 - though taking it remains a formidable task.

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When Basketball New Zealand announced they were withdrawing from the men’s Olympic basketball qualification tournament due to travel costs and a focus on future international programmes in February, the Philippines, as the next best team from the Asia-Oceania region, were chosen to replace the Tall Blacks.

As of writing, the Philippines’ men’s team is ranked as the 31st best team in the world by FIBA, and sixth-best in the Asia-Oceania region.

Australia and Iran (ranked first and second in the region, respectively) have already qualified for Tokyo 2020, and China (fourth) and the Republic of Korea (fifth) are also entered into their own Olympic qualification tournaments (in Canada and Lithuania respectively).

The Philippines have been drawn into Group A of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgrade, alongside the Dominican Republic (19th in the world) and hosts Serbia (5th in the world).

The men’s team will have to either win the group or finish second in order to progress, where they will face the runner-up or second-place finisher from Group B (Italy (10th in the world), Puerto Rico (18th in the world) and Senegal (35th in the world) in the semi-finals.

The winners from each semi-final will progress to the final, with the eventual champion securing one of the final four spots for the men’s basketball tournament at Tokyo 2020. The first games of the qualifying tournament will be played on June 29, 2021.

To stand a chance of progressing out of Group A - let alone winning the qualifying tournament - Gilas Pilipinas must produce some exceptional basketball to overcome their higher-ranked opponents.

Though the challenge awaiting the Philippines in Serbia is fierce.

Gilas Pilipinas have won five FIBA Asia Cups (formerly known as the FIBA Asia Championship), four Asian Games men's basketball gold medals, and eight SEABA Championships (including their most recent title in 2017) in their history. The Philippines are one of the top teams in Southeast Asia - and must play like it if they are to earn a win against either Serbia or the Dominican Republic.

Will Kai Sotto make his mark with the senior team?

Already a standout performer with the Philipinnes’ U16, U17 and U18 teams at the continental and world levels, 18-year-old Kai Sotto will be a part of the senior squad for the Olympic qualifying tournament and the remaining FIBA Asia Cup 2021 Qualifiers' games.

"I am very excited and very honoured to be joining the Gilas national team that will be playing this OQT and FIBA Asia Cup," Sotto told ABS-CNB news in April.

The 2.18m (7’2) center from the Philippines became the first international player to sign a contract with the G League in May 2020, and in April 2021, he signed a multi-year deal with the Adelaide 36ers of Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL), where he will play for the upcoming 2021/22 season.

Sotto is expected to declare for the NBA Draft in 2022.

FIBA Asia Cup

The Philippines currently sit top of their FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifying group, with three wins out of three.

On April 9, FIBA confirmed the remaining games of Group A, B and C (which were postponed due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic) will take place in Clark City, Philippines from June 16-20. The Philippines only need one more win to qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup 2021, which will take place from August 16-28 - just after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (July 23 - August 8).

Gilas Pilipinas are set for a hectic schedule, finishing up their FIBA Asia Cup qualifying campaign just before travelling to Serbia for the Olympic qualifying tournament at the end of June.

If they win the latter, they will get a brief respite before the Games start on July 23.

Basketball is the most popular sport in the Philippines, and the game’s growth in the archipelago is reflected in the development of NBA prospects like Kai Sotto and the national team’s past successes in international tournaments. In addition to hosting the remaining Group A, B and C FIBA Asia Cup qualifying games, the nation has also been selected as a co-host for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup alongside Japan and Indonesia - the second time FIBA has chosen the Philippines as a host for the competition (the Philippines staged the FIBA World Championship in 1978).

But before they can look too far ahead, Gilas Pilipinas must prepare themselves for the challenge at hand - and a shot at finally returning to the Olympic Games.