Wins by the skins of their teeth, losses by a mile, a first round-sweep by one team and a second-round sweep by another, a Jeron Teng turnaround jumpshot that broke the backs of their arch-rivals, an Almond Vosotros game-winner that danced a couple of times on the rim before going in, a Finals series that marked the climax of a sibling rivalry that had been simmering for two years, and, ultimately, the first championship in seven years for the DLSU Green Archers.
If these highlights from the 76th Season of the UAAP are any indication, it’s Season 77 (themed “Unity in Excellence”) is bound to be more thrilling than the previous one. Now, we know that La Salle will be parading a 14-man line-up that is arguably their most talented in years as they seek to win their second straight UAAP crown and their ninth overall.
But before we take a look at their chances of adding more hardware to the already decorated halls of the St. La Salle Building, let us first take a look at the seven other universities they will be facing and how they stack up against them.
UP Fighting Maroons
Three wins, maybe more.
The guarantee came from UP Head Coach Rey Madrid, and was first uttered during the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup, when his wards where fresh from a 72-59 beatdown of the Emilio Aguinaldo College Generals. It certainly puts the ‘fearless’ in ‘forecast,’ especially once you consider that UP lost eight players in the offseason, including their best scorer (Joseph Marata) and rebounder (Raul Soyud).
We saw the fight back in the Maroons in Season 75, when they lost all fourteen of their games by an average of just 6.2 points. Moral victories, those kinds of losses are called. But with the loss of most of their battle-hardened veterans, the team once again dropped all their games last year, and this time, the losses weren’t pretty: They featured the league’s most anemic offense and the most porous defense. And that 6.2 point losing margin? It was up to 13.2. But in spite of all these things, Madrid may have been right to assume that his team can win at least three games.
If you’re a UP fan, what are some reasons for optimism heading into Season 77?
First, let’s not forget that Madrid was thrust as the head coach of the Maroons when Season 76 was in full swing, and this year, he’ll have more time to put his system in place and prepare his players. There’s also their decent FIl-Oil Preseason stint, where they picked up two victories (versus CSB and EAC) against four losses and managed to put up 75.5 points per game, a far cry from their 64 point average last year. Five of their players averaged in double figures, including JR Gallarza, Henry Asilum, the comebacking Mikee Reyes, and reigning Rookie of the Year Kyles Lao.
And pacing the team in scoring in the Fil-Oil Cup was former San Beda Red Lion Dave Moralde, who normed almost 14 points a contest and looks to provide the scoring punch that Marata gave them last season. Add to that the arrival of Diego Dario, a blue-chip recruit from the Junior Maroons, who averaged 9.7 points in almost 15 minutes during the preseason, and it’s easy to see why Madrid saw his squad pulling the rug from some of the opposing teams and winning at least three games.
How do they stack up against the Green Archers?
The Green Archers never locked horns with the Fighting Maroons during the Fil-Oil Preseason tilt, so the only yardstick to how these two teams measure against one another is during their two matches in Season 76, which La Salle both won handily. Jason Perkins and Jeron Teng were particularly effective against the Maroons’ thin frontline, with the former finishing with double-doubles in both meetings.
And with UP coming into Season 77 with the loss of both Soyud and Chris Ball, expect the beefed up La Salle frontline of Perkins, Arnold Van Opstal, Norbert Torres, Yutien Andrada, and Abu Tratter to assert their might in the shaded lane. UP gave up the most points in the paint last season, and there’s no better team to take advantage of this weakness than the Green Archers.
Madrid’s prediction was more than just about avoiding another fruitless campaign, because three or more wins, he adds, will mean that his team will finally get out of the cellar where they have languished for so long. The last time UP didn’t finish last was in Season 71, when they finished sixth, ahead of Adamson and NU. The last time they managed to win three games or more was in Season 72, when they finished with a 3-11 card.
This year’s squad seems to have remedied their biggest weakness last season, which is their inability to put point points across the board, as they have several players averaging in double-figures during the preseason. But scoring buckets is one thing, and keeping your opponents from scoring on the other end is another, especially from the paint. The Maroons will try to play small-ball to compensate for their lack of height, and they certainly have an improved guard corps, but their lack of size seems to be too glaring for them to be able to fully overcome.
If you are a basketball team and you just lost two MVPs, you automatically go into rebuilding mode, right? Not if you’re the FEU Tamaraws, who lost 2009 MVP RR Garcia and last year’s Best Player, Terrence Romeo. Last season, the Tams entered the UAAP season facing a lot of issues, most of them off the court, including big man Russel Escoto’s season-ending injury. But they stormed out of the gates and swept the first round of the season, salvaging a Final Four seat, before sputtering in the semis against the Archers.
And just when people thought that they were done after the departure of Romeo and Garcia, the Tamaraws had a magical run last year at the PCCL, giving their fans a preview of their exciting brand of basketball while toppling teams like NU, UST, and even reigning NCAA titlists San Beda. Only a loss to the South Western University Cobras prevented them from advancing to the Finals versus the Green Archers. And just this summer, the team piled up an impressive 6-1 card, that lone loss coming against La Salle. So if these preseason showings are any indication, then FEU has no plans of fading from the list of contender this coming season.
This team lost two MVPs, but why did they have strong showings in the PCCL and the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup?
They did it by becoming the most productive offense during the preseason, scoring 84.3 points per game on a 48% shooting clip, and dishing out almost 18 assists as a team. Mike Tolomia paced the team in scoring, averaging 18 markers a game, while Mac Belo, Raymar Jose, Roger Pogoy, Achie Iñigo, and Escoto, who will be returning this season, all averaged at least six points a game. When the team’s offense is humming, as it has been through most of their games, they can be a fun group to watch, and a hard team to beat.
How do they stack-up against the Green Archers?
La Salle and FEU met a couple of times during the offseason, one during the PCCL, when the Green Archers clobbered the Tams, 80-60, the other during the semifinals of the Fil-Oil Preseason tilt when the team rode on the hot hand of Thomas Torres, who nailed seven triples to squeak past FEU, 94-89. Five games have been played between these two teams last season, and all of those games have been close, with one of them going an extra period.
FEU will be La Salle’s first assignment this season, and this is a team who will try to dictate their fast style of play to try to neutralize the Archers’ frontline, which is something that La Salle must try to avoid. This is also a team that does not immediately go away, as evidenced by their first round encounter last year when they battled back from a 13 point deficit to force overtime and eventually upend the Archers.
You ask any of these Tamaraws on the reason for their success leading to the UAAP season, and you’ll hear the phrase ‘team basketball’ more than once. If their team is able to have a similar level of success with their ball-sharing style of basketball, then expect this team to make noise and contend for the Final Four slots, which will be up for grabs once more just like last year. Tolomia has embraced his role as this team’s leader, Hargrove seems rejuvenated, Belo will further improve on his numbers after gaining international exposure during the SEA Games.
The return of Escoto will certainly be a welcome addition, but even with him and Hargrove, Raymar Jose, Carl Bryan Cruz, and even newcomer Richard Escoto, FEU’s frontline will still have a hard time against the bigs of other teams like the Green Archers. Mentor Nash Racela has repeatedly mentioned that he won’t be relying on any single player like he did last year, when Romeo would try to dance with his defender one on one and wave his teammates off.
This would make his team unpredictable, as the offense can come from anyone, but this is a double-edged sword, especially when the clock is winding down, the pressure is mounting, and the game is on the line. That’s the time when a go-to-guy will have to step up, and that’s when we’ll know if Tolomia is ready to take on that challenge.
UST Growling Tigers
Six minutes and thirty-nine seconds into the third quarter. Game Three of the UAAP Finals. Jeric Teng backed down on his defender, dibbled a couple of times, got a little separation and hoisted another jumper. Splash. UST was in the driver’s seat, and it wasn’t close. 15 points stood between them and the Green Archers.
This was a team that hitherto had suffered a back-breaking shoulder injury to their best player early in the season, were able to hold the fort in his absence and salvage a playoff for the fourth slot, ended Ateneo’s hopes of a sixth straight crown, before becoming the first four-seed to defeat a number one team and overhaul their twice-to-beat advantage.
But those final minutes in the third canto went by in a blur, and by the end of the quarter the Tigers’ lead was brought down like a wall of sand. They were dragged into a war of attrition during the fourth quarter and overtime period, and their duo that had carried the load for them all game long (Teng and Karim Abdul) finally began to wane.
Now, they enter Season 77 without their King Tiger, a vital cog in their two Finals stints in Clark Bautista, and the man who had instilled the leave-it-all-on-the-court mentality that they have become known for: Pido Jarencio. But with new as well as familiar faces donning the Gold-and-White this year, it’s easy to see why these Tigers still have a lot of fight in them.
This is a team lost their coach and best player. What can we expect from them?
In an interview with Solarsportsdesk.ph, newly-minted UST head coach Segundo “Bong” Dela Cruz revealed that despite the fact that Jarencio is now with the Globalport Batang Pier squad in the PBA, he still intends to maintain the Pride, Puso, Palaban system that Jarencio has instilled in his charges during his eight-year tenure as its head coach. So as for coaching, we know that the same blueprint for success (one title, two Finals appearances) used by Jarencio will still be seen in this next batch of Tigers, although it remains to be seen if it will be as effective with Dela Cruz at the helm.
Jeric Teng, on the other hand, will be hard to replace, although the team will be able to blunt the impact of the loss of his offensive firepower with the return of Louie Vigil, a former NCAA MVP, and the addition of the likes of Renzo Subido from De La Salle-Zobel, Alfren Gayosa from San Sebastian College, and Gelo Sablan from UPIS. Subido, in particular, can make an immediate impact on offense for UST, as he led the UAAP Juniors Division in scoring after putting up 20.1 points a contest.
How do they stack-up against the Green Archers?
Since their thrilling encounter last October in one of the best UAAP Finals series in recent memory, La Salle and UST have not yet tested each other’s mettle. They narrowly missed a chance for a rematch in the PCCL, when FEU knocked the Tigers out of the tournament. But if the past UAAP season is to be used as a yardstick, then we have a pretty good sample size: Five games, two of them needing an extra period to decide, all of them decided by seven points or less. And despite the loss of Teng, Bautista, and others, expect games between the Tigers and the Archers to still be tightly-contested.
This year, however, La Salle will field a deeper team, while its cast from last year’s title quest remains almost intact. The Tigers, on the other hand, will have to adjust to a new coach, while depending more on their newcomers more than the Archers, which might spell the difference between these teams.
During the UAAP Press Conference, Dela Cruz mentioned that if his Tigers were to barge into the Finals for the third straight time, he wants to face the Green Archers, for the pain of their defeat last season is still fresh in their minds. But can his team really march all the way to the Last Dance after the loss of their coach and best player?
Karim Abdul will once again be putting MVP-type numbers, Kevin Ferrer will likely build on his impressive overall performance in the season, especially after his Sinag-Pilipinas stint in the SEA Games last year, and Aljon Mariano is out for redemption after groping for form in last year’s Finals. But with their King Tiger now playing in the pros, their supporting cast will now be thrust into the harsh spotlight. Ed Daquioag, Jam Sherriff, and their rookies will have to contribute for them to have a chance of exacting revenge against the Archers.
Dela Cruz, meanwhile, will be under a magnifying glass himself. Although he has spent the last two years as one of Jarencio’s assistants, it will undoubtedly take time for him and his system to take root and hold. His witticisms during post-game interviews have certainly made him one of the most colourful personalities in the UAAP, but one thing that Jarencio has done throughout his tenure is that he has managed to get the most out of his players, something that Dela Cruz still has to prove.