TOKYO - Smart Gilas coach Chot Reyes looked grim and serious before boarding the team bus Wednesday on the eve of their quarterfinal match with Chinese-Taipei in the FIBA-Asia Cup championship at the Ota gymnasium.
"We're facing perhaps the strongest Chinese-Taipei team. Everybody is here. We expect a very difficult match," said Reyes who was set to conduct a mid-morning team practice.
The Filipinos and the Taiwanese collide for the second time this year at 2 p.m. Thursday, the winner advancing against Iran in the semi-finals.
The Iranians, the only undefeated squad in the tournament, are expected to get by Uzbekistan at 11:30 a.m.
The last time the two teams fought, Smart Gilas rode on LA Tenorio's 11 points in the final quarter to beat the Taiwanese, 76-72, during the Jones Cup last month in Taipei.
The Filipinos went on to topple United States and win the annual tournament.
"Kaya natin 'yan," said Tenorio, adding that the Taiwanese have no answer to Marcus Douthit, the team's 6-11 naturalized center.
Reyes, however, doesn't share Tenorio's optimism.
"Both teams have similar styles. We have to do a good job on transition defense. And we have to find ways to break their zone," Reyes said.
After struggling in the first two games, the Filipinos did better shooting the threes against lightweight opponents.
Jeff Chan, who only had one trey against China and Lebanon, finally found his range, scoring eight against Uzbekistan and Macau.
Tien Lei, who once played in the NBA Summer League in 2005, will be Chinese-Taipei's main man. He leads the team in scoring - 14.8 points - and in rebounds - 6.5.
Smart Gilas has not lost a match against Chinese-Taipei. The last Philippine team to lose against the Taiwanese was the Powerade squad handled by Yeng Guiao in 2009. That came during the Jones Cup, but the Filipinos quickly avenged the loss during the FIBA Asia in Tianjin, China that same year.
What could work against the Filipinos are the high expectations at home following their sensational win in Taipei last month.
What has been overlooked was the fact that the team was formed a little more than a month ago and is lacking in size since some of its players are still recovering from injuries.
The team, however, does not have a shortage in energy and determination.
Devoid of superstars, Smart Gilas has been performing beyond expectations under the innovative system used by Reyes, a nine-time PBA winner.
Coming from six teams, the players have developed a strong bond and kinship, unseen in past national teams sent by the PBA.
"This is perhaps the best team ever formed. No big egos to deal with. No baggage to carry," said Smart Gilas assistant coach Ryan Gregorio.