Blatche trump card for Gilas; Ace center a puzzle to Fiba foes

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There is one thing that Iran didn’t see in its last two victories over Gilas Pilipinas: a 6-foot-11, world-class talent in the naturalized Andray Blatche.

The Iranians have been installed as the team to beat in the Fiba Asia Olympic Qualifier, set for tip-off September 22 in Changsha in Chinaís Hunan province, specially since they will be flying in with a full roster led by Hamed Haddadi and Samad Nikha Bahrami.

And while the Iranians have never played Blatche before, the Filipinos know the damage that Haddadi and Bahrami are capable of inflicting and have prepared hard to counter them.

Blatche will be playing in just his second full tournament for the Philippines after endearing himself to Filipino fans in the Fiba World Cup in Seville, Spain, last year.

In Seville, Blatche averaged close to 22 points - second best in the group stage of the tournament - and led the World Cup in rebounding with more than 13 a game.

The Filipinos didn’t cross paths with the Iranians in Spain because they were both representing Asia like South Korea, and all three had to be put in different brackets.

Gilas can face Iran once or twice in Changsha, in the round after the group stages, and if both teams make it all the way during the gold-medal match.

Olympic qualifying format calls for each team to play the teams in its group once with the top three advancing to join the other top three squads in another group.

In the Philippines’ case, Gilas is expected to dominate Group B and join the three qualifiers coming from Group A, where Iran belongs together with Japan, Malaysia and India.

Teams in the merged group will play each other once, with the top four to advance to the knockout stages. Expected to advance from Group A are the Iranians, Japan and India.

It is important for Gilas to make the KO stages with the highest rank possible so it could draw a relatively light assignment.

Groups C and D would likely have China, Chinese Taipei, Qatar, South Korea, Kazakhstan and Lebanon advancing.

Save for the Taiwanese, whom the Filipinos handily beat in the recent MVP Cup, none of the other countries in the Fiba Asia tournament have played Blatche before, making him a puzzle for the rest of the field.

Blatche, following a five-day camp in Cebu, looked fit in Gilas’ final practice on Sunday, September 20, and his touch from the outside has also come back. And with three light group assignments for the Filipinos, he could be even better than the player the Philippines saw in the World Cup.

Blatche also knows all the best players in the Chinese team, having played in the Chinese league until last March where he averaged close to 32 points and 11 rebounds a contest.