For Gilas Pilipinas' campaign in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, GMA News Online connected with Milos Jovanovic, a veteran Serbian sportswriter, to help break things down from an outside perspective. Read his preview of the Philippines-Serbia game here.
If you put the words “Dominican Republic” and “professional sports” together, I am somewhat sure that the first names that one’s imagination would conjure are almost all exclusively baseball players. Be it the wayward hitting genius of Manny Ramirez, the ice-cold pitching marvel Pedro Martinez, charismatic slugger David “Big Papi” Ortiz or the multi-talented freak that was Vladimir Guerrero, the best Dominican sports ambassadors were almost always exclusively plying their trade in the MLB.
That said, baseball might be the king of the Caribbean, but it isn’t the only sport enjoyed on those islands. Which brings us to the Dominican Republic national hoops team, the third piece to the Belgrade OQT group A puzzle, and one of the key rivals which stand in Gilas way of advancing past the initial stage.
Unlike the hosts, a storied basketball nation with a long tradition and an even longer honour roll, the Dominicans are somewhat of a mystery. Their international track record is spotty – they have appeared only three times at the FIBA Worlds (including consecutive appearances in 2014 and 2019) and won one silver and one bronze at the Pan American Games and the FIBA AmeriCup. They enjoy better fortunes at the Centrobasket stage – the tournament which they won three times and scored numerous other runner-up and third place medals – but so far, they have never graced the Olympics with their presence.
That said, it is not that the Dominicans didn’t have their shining moments. Big Al Horford, who’s been recently traded back to the Boston Celtics following a short spell in Oklahoma, is a Puerto Plata native who won the 2012 Centrobasket with the Seleccion Quisqueyana. Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who has mixed American-Dominican ancestry, was also part of that team but hasn’t featured much since. Europe-based guards such as Edgar Sosa, James Feldeine have also done their part over the years, as well as NBA journeymen Francisco Garcia and Charlie Villanueva. It is also worth mentioning that the college coaching legend John Calipari, as well as the former Nets head coach and current LA Clippers assistant Kenny Atkinson, both had spells on the bench of the national team – the former masterminding the aforementioned 2012 Centrobasket title.
But all of this is past tense. Neither Horford nor Towns have travelled to Belgrade, and Calipari is long gone as well. The team which will face off against Serbia and Philippines is a team with strong veteran presence, and a team which relies more on their experience and cohesiveness rather than outright flash to win games.
And – let’s be frank – they also happen to represent the best shot that Gilas has at reaching the knockouts.
(Eloy Vargas at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Photo: FIBA)
Coached by the local standout Melvyn Lopez, the Dominican team has two strong points on which they rely to win their games. One of them is the big man Eloy Vargas, who has been the selection’s mainstay for the past decade, currently in the employ of Iranian side Chemidor Qom. Vargas, now 32 years old and standing at 6-foot-11, has enjoyed a long and productive international career following his graduation from Calipari’s Kentucky, where he won the national title in 2012. Since his collegiate days, he has played in the former D-League, Greece, Spain, France and all around Latin America before eventually winding up in Iran.
Vargas is a traditional center playing mostly in the low post, and doing his damage from the paint. He will stab the occasional midrange jumper, but he hardly bothers with the three-point shot and will rather try and exploit slower-footed opposition by attacking from pick and rolls. Vargas is also a solid defensive presence – his average of 1.4 blocks per game at this year’s FIBA AmeriCup qualifying tournament attesting to that – and will clear the boards on both ends.
Feeding Vargas down the lane and doing some of the damage themselves is the task of Dominican backcourt duo Victor Liz and Mike Torres. Liz is another veteran who, unlike Eloy, spent most of his career bouncing around the Caribbean – most recently, he’s been playing with the Puerto Rican outfit Leons de Ponce. A stable shooter with career three-point percentages hitting high thirties to low forties, Liz has lost some of his pace but is still someone you don’t want to sag off at the perimeter.
(Victor Liz. Photo: FIBA)
Mike Torres, on the other side, is on his way up. The Spanish-born Torres has slowly worked up his resume through the years – he has advanced through the depths of the Spanish league ladder, suiting up for 4th division clubs and eventually winding up at Real Betis, a top flight side where he’s lined up alongside his countrymate Feldeine.
The 6-foot-1 point might have not gotten plenty of burn in this year’s ACB, clocking up an average of seven minutes per game and hitting mere 2.3 points on the average, but he’s been a steady presence for the Dominicans internationally. He shone bright at the 2021 AmeriCup qualifiers, with his 19 points, 11 dimes and 9 boards proving crucial in the win against the Virgin Islands, which eventually sealed their Belgrade berth. With Torres, who will attack the basket despite his relative lack of size and marshall the passing game, and Liz lurking at the perimeter, Gilas guards will have their work cut out for them.
(Mike Torrres at the FIBA AmeriCup Qualifiers. Photo: FIBA)
The tuneup games the Dominicans played so far – two easy losses against Lithuania and one surprise win over Russia – have unearthed a few new names worth mentioning. Backup center Jhonathan Araujo, currently playing in Uruguay, has proven that he can spell Vargas when he’s in a need of rest. Rigoberto Mendoza, who had some success playing as an import in Israel, Adonys Henriquez (playing in Spanish second division) and Gelvis Solano (based in Mexico) will also get backcourt minutes. Forward Angel Nunez is a consistent downtown threat, mostly coming in off the bench – another one who should be carefully monitored when on court.
Gilas plays Dominican Republic on Thursday, the 1st of July, at 20:30 local (Friday, July 2, 02:30 Manila time). Barring an upset of mythical proportions (in coach Tab Baldwin’s boys beating Serbia the day before), this will be the game which decides who of those two goes one step further in the tournament. And it’s not entirely preposterous to say that the Philippines have a shot.
As you’ve read from the scouting report above, the Dominicans are a veteran bunch, while Gilas feature a young, fleet-of-foot roster. If Team Pilipinas is to stand any chance in this game, they must attack early and with pace – a few converted triples and a few fastbreaks will shake the Caribbean side and force them into chase, which they are not neccesarily great at.
Should Gilas break into an early double-digit lead, the Quisqueyanos will be looking to avoid what we Serbians call “shortening of hands”, which inevitably happens to expected faves in such ties that are not exactly the highest levels – with the deficit increasing and the clock racing, the automatic jump shots start falling short and the nerves start to set in. It will be just a question of Gilas forcing their own rhythm in the game, rather than falling into the Dominican pattern. And this is very much doable under the right conditions.
The backcourt battle might be the one to keep an eye on, but the frontcourt one is also an intriguing watch. Again, look for Baldwin to use Kai Sotto as a decoy who will wear out Vargas and potentially get him into foul trouble – when Vargas is off-court, Ange Kouame could attempt to get physical down low. Youth here is again an asset which is to be exploited.
If Serbia does her part on Tuesday and Wednesday and expectedly wins both ties, then Thursday will indeed be the Decision Day for Gilas and the Dominicans alike. And it’s due time that Team Pilipinas wins a big game on the international circuit outside of their home continent. All it will take is some buckets falling early, some defense holding on late, and a lot of puso. With all those accounted for, victory could be within reach.
Milos Jovanovic is a veteran sportswriter based in Belgrade, Serbia, mostly writing about basketball. His past credits include VICE Serbia where he ran the weekly sports column. He also hosts a weekly hoops podcast to be found at the Serbian MONDO news outlet website, and has contributed to and directed several basketball-themed documentaries which were aired on TV nationally. He is fluent in Serbian, English and Dutch and prefers to be left alone when Red Star Belgrade are playing.
—JMB, GMA News