World Cup cast shaping up

Gilas Pilipinas is tipped to have a tough time as two teams — one from Europe and the other from Africa
— have already punched tickets to the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

Bannered by National Basketball Association stalwart Lauri Markkanen, Finland beat Estonia, 76-68, to become the first team to make the World Cup that the Philippines will co-host with Japan and Indonesia from 25 August to 10 September next year.

Markkanen, a sweet-shooting forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, fired 18 points on 50 percent shooting from the field to lead the Susijengi to their seventh win in eight games that gave them the first of the six World Cup slots for Europe.

It’s going to be Finland’s second World Cup appearance after finishing 22nd in the prestigious basketball event in Spain in 2014.

Aside from Finland, which is at No. 35 in the FIBA ranking, other European teams that are zeroing on World Cup slots are Lativia, Greece, Germany, Slovenia, Lithuania, France, Spain and Italy.

The Latvians, with Kristaps Porzingis of the Washington Wizards at the helm, are sporting a 5-1 card while the Greeks led by former NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks are not far behind with a 4-2 card in Group I entering the last two windows of the qualifiers.

Germany of Houston Rockets playmaker Dennis Schroeder also fashions a 7-1 card in Group J while Lithuania of Domantas Sabonis of the Sacramento Kings and France of Rudy Gobert of the Minnesota Timberwolves have 7-1 and 6-2 marks, respectively in Group K.

In Group L, Spain and Italy are safely ahead with identical 5-1 records.

Few hours later, it was Ivory Coast’s turn to punch a ticket to the World Cup following a 77-69 victory over Cape Verde in the African Qualifiers.

Alexander Poythress, an international journeyman who now plays in Israel, was at the helm as the Elephants remain unbeaten in seven games since the qualifiers started in November 2021.

After sweeping Group E of the African Qualifiers, the world No. 41 Ivory Coast will be making a return to the World Cup after finishing 29th in the previous edition in China.

The Elephants’ best finish in the World Cup was 13th when the event was held in Colombia in 1982.

Other African teams who are tipped to grab the four remaining World Cup spots are Angola (5-2) in Group E, and South Sudan (8-1), Egypt (7-2) and Senegal (6-3) in Group F.

The Philippines and Japan, however, were the first to make it to the World Cup for being the host countries.

The Filipinos, who are at world No. 34 and made their last World Cup appearance in China in 2019, are struggling to find their rhythm as they faded with only two wins in five games behind New Zealand (5-0), Lebanon, (4-1) and Jordan (3-2).

Their latest game was a disaster as they suffered 21 turnovers en route to absorbing an 85-81 loss to Lebanon in the fourth window of the Asian Qualifiers.

The only glimmer of hope for the basketball-crazy Filipinos, however, was Jordan Clarkson’s pronouncement that he will return to power Gilas Pilipinas in the World Cup that will be held at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.

“Yes,” Clarkson said when asked if he is willing to return for another tour of duty in the World Cup and, possibly, the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“We have 360 days before the World Cup so we have to prepare and get ready for all of that. Everything I envisioned, what we have been trying to push for, hopefully comes into life.”

Japan, for its part, is also huffing and puffing in Group F as it is missing the services of NBA players Rui Hachimura of the Wizards and Yuta Watanabe of the Brooklyn Nets in the ongoing fourth window, allowing playmaker Yuki Togashi of the Chiba Jets to take the leadership role.

The Atsuki Five’s previous game resulted to a 68-79 loss to Hamed Haddadi and the Iranians, putting them in a must-win situation against Kazakhstan at press time.

With that, the Japanese are in the fifth spot in Group F with a 2-5 mark behind Australia (7-0), Kazakhstan
(5-2), China (5-2) and Iran (5-2) entering the last two windows of the Asian qualifiers.

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