Wins by the skins of their teeth, losses by a mile, a combined 70-point shootout between Jeron Teng and Ray-Ray Parks in a pulsating double-overtime game, an RR Garcia lay-up at the end of regulation that was initially counted and then rescinded, a Kiefer Ravena dunk on Karim Abdul, two game-winners on consecutive games (from almost the same spot) by Chris Javier, and ultimately, a fifth consecutive championship for the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
If these highlights from the UAAP’s diamond season are any indication, it’s that the league’s 76th season (themed “Greatness Never Ends”) is bound to be more thrilling than the previous one. The DLSU Green Archers will be looking for their first UAAP title since 2007 after having made the Final Four last season.
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.
A first Final Four appearance since 2001 and a second straight MVP plum for Ray-Ray Parks are two notable achievements by the NU Bulldogs last season, and yet there are still some who believe that Coach Eric Altaminaro’s wards somewhat underwhelmed last season, given the way they ran roughshods over their opponents during the preseason en route to their first Fil-Oil crown.
They had a similar run this year, but they showed signs of vulnerability: Rey Nambatac and Mark Cruz of the Letran Knights nearly upended them during the quarterfinals, and the Red Warriors pounced on the foul woes of Parks and Emmanuel Mbe to fashion a drubbing of the defending champs in the finals. But once the coaches convened inside the Mall of Asia Arena for the annual UAAP Press Conference, most of the team mentors agreed: NU is still one of the title favorites this Season 76.
1. How good is Alfred Aroga? Is he the missing piece in the Bulldogs’ championship puzzle?
Mbe, who has manned the post for the Bulldogs for the past three years, suffered an injury early in the preseason and suited up for limited minutes. Aroga was promptly inserted into the starting lineup, and wasted no time showing his wares. He is more agile and a more prolific scorer than Mbe while remaining just as active on the defensive end. He averaged 14 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks during the preseason, thus giving Altamirano another scoring option and making a stacked Bulldog line-up even deeper. And that Best Defensive Player of the tournament plum which was won by Mbe last year? It was won by Aroga.
2. How do they stack-up against the Green Archers?
Who could forget the first meeting between La Salle and NU last season, when Jeron Teng and Parks fired 35 points apiece in a double-overtime thriller? The game was also Almond Vosotros’ coming out party for the season, as this was the contest that got his confidence going. The second meeting between the squads, however, was plagued by long dearths in scoring for the Green Archers, an MVP-type performance from Parks, and a string of strange non-calls against La Salle, and by the end of the first half the Bulldogs had erected a double-digit spread that they did not relinquish.
While it is a herculean task to contain Parks (except perhaps for Kevin Ferrer) limiting the contributions of his supporting cast, such as Aroga, Mbe, Gelo Alolino, Troy Rosario, Jeoff Javillonar, and Denice Villamor is paramount if they want to book a win against these Bulldogs.
Where UP has experienced a huge loss of personnel, the Bulldogs have been the picture of stability heading into Season 76, with 12 holdovers from the team last season. Last season saw them take that first step from being a middling team during Parks’ first year to a legitimate title contender, and with a roster that is loaded on almost every position and a year’s experience under their belts, the expectations will be much loftier for NationalU.
Parks will once more showcase his brilliance throughout the season, but what if he once more runs into a wall like Kevin Ferrer during last year’s semifinals? Parks believes that he has the support he needs to bring them to the Promised Land, and a time will come when his teammates will have to back up this claim.
UST Growling Tigers
Pido Jarencio, a favorite of the sports press for his humorous quips during post-game interviews and press conferences, was unusually reserved during the Press Conference for Season 76. The consensus among the head honchos of different squads was that the NU Bulldogs and the UE Red Warriors, who had duelled for the Fil-Oil title, are the favorites to unseat Ateneo heading into the season.
But what about this team, which has lost only two notable players from its line-up last season, which won last year’s PCCL, and which gave the Blue Eagles all they can handle before succumbing in last year’s Finals? Jeric Fortuna and Melo Afuang have both had their final tours of duty last season, but Jarencio’s line-up, like that of the Bulldogs, has largely remained the same, although a fourth-place finish during the Fil-Oil preseason tournament seemed to have whisked away those memories.
1. How will the loss of Jeric Fortuna impact the team?
In terms of scoring, not much, but what Fortuna really brings to this team is his stability at the point, as he is able to protect the ball, orchestrate the Tiger offense, and even knock down a clutch shot or two, as evidenced during their match against the Bulldogs which saw him bank in a game-tying triple with time winding. Without the De La Salle-Zobel standout, the problem of turnovers has already reared its head in their direction during some of their losses during the preseason, and it’s up to Eddie Daquioag, Edcor Marata, and Jemil Sherriff to make sure that this changes during the UAAP. Among the three, Daquioag has made the most impact, norming six points, six boards, and three assists in the Fil-Oil Cup, although Jarencio will likely turn to Marata and Sherriff when needed.
2. How do they stack-up against the Green Archers?
In the two meetings between the teams last season, here’s what happened: The first was a double overtime contest won only by a baseline jumper from UST’s Aljon Mariano, while the second one featured Jeron Teng flexing his muscles as he was mobbed by his teammates while he ran towards midcourt, having beaten the Tigers and his elder brother Jeric via a stinging buzzer-beater.
The Fil-Oil season meeting between the teams was likewise interesting, with La Salle clawing back from a deficit to pull the rug from under the Tigers. This was the first nationally televised game for Jason Perkins, and we were witnesses to how good he is, while Gabby Reyes likewise showed his scoring prowess. La Salle and UST games have always been tightly-contested, as both these squads are evenly matched on paper, and this year’s matches between the two teams and the Teng siblings are bound to be no different.
After their defeat at the hands of the Blue Eagles, while their conquerors were basking in the warm glow of winning their fifth consecutive crown, Jeric Teng remained a little longer on the UST bench, drinking in the sights and shedding tears after coming close to force a deciding game. The 2009 Rookie of the Year will have a final chance to erase those memories, and helping him will be Abdul, who will once more be putting up MVP-like numbers provided that he stays healthy, the deadly scoring of Mariano and Bautista, and Ferrer, who is finally putting up a substantial amount of points after being largely utilized as a defender in years past.
Jarencio may have remained low-key during that press conference, keeping his cards close to his chest, but once that Hunger Games-themed production is over and the UAAP season gets underway, they will waste no time reminding everyone why they made the Finals roughly nine months ago, and we may just see them duking it out for the title once the month of October finally rolls in.
Ateneo Blue Eagles
There was the victory over their arch-rivals anchored by a sterling performance by Rabeh Al-Hussaini, a gut-wrenching three-game affair against a talented UE Red Warriors team that nearly won their first crown in 28 years, a season filled with doubt that ended with a Ryan Buenafe triple, a near-sweep during the eliminations and a dominating Finals performance, and two tough games against the Growling Tigers during the Last Dance for their fifth straight championship.
But with the departure of five talented players comprising most of their frontline and wingmen, with Coach Norman Black heading back to the pro ranks, and with a spate of injuries cutting their preseason run short, the Blue Eagles emerged from their celebration and into Season 76 surrounded by uncertainty.
1. They lost Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, Justin Chua, Oping Sumalinog, and Tonino Gonzaga during the preseason. They should be pretty easy to beat, right?
If they are to be judged by their preseason performance, no. They played mostly with an undermanned line-up, but they were still able to amass an impressive 7-1 win-loss card before pulling out because of those aforementioned injuries. How did they do it? By being one of the most potent offenses, by constantly sharing the leather, and by a strong preseason performance by Kiefer Ravena, who averaged 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists. All the teams have indeed added more ceiling during the offseason, but this team has stuck to its strengths and has lent credence to the argument that size is not always better than speed.
2. How do they stack-up against the Green Archers?
An indelible image during the Ateneo – La Salle match during the preseason would be Ravena backing down on a smaller defender before getting a little separation and popping a difficult turnaround jumper which would, time again, find its way through the hoop. Frank Golla and Juami Tiongson were able to backstop Ravena as the Eagles shot 49% from the field and won the highly-billed contest by eight.
Anytime you let a team make almost half of their shots from the field, it’s going to be hard to defeat them. And despite La Salle’s much taller frontline, they were only able to hold a two-rebound advantage against their arch-rivals. If Norbert Torres, Arnold Van Opstal, and Jason Perkins can lord it over Ateneo’s smaller frontline, then it becomes much easier for them to score. And there’s also this matter of Ravena scoring 31 points while drawing single coverage for the entire game. If the Archers hope to contain him, Coach Juno Sauler will most likely throw a couple of other bodies to him aside from Robert Bolick and Thomas Torres.
The ignition has been turned off, the engine killed, the key removed. The Drive for Five is over, and now begins Ateneo’s toughest title defense. The tag of dark horse is usually not reserved to a team that had won the last five titles, but it is a role that they will have to take coming in to Season 76. But Coach Bo Perasol still believes that they can pull it off, and he has managed to put a system in place, a system that has worked so far. But things like rebounding will have to be done by committee and not only by Chris Newsome and Frank Golla, Ryan Buenafe will have to conjure some of that old magic from the Season 73 Finals, Juami Tiongson’s scoring should not be limited to the occasional floater or triple, and Von Pessumal and Nico Elorde will have to continue their torrid shooting from the outside in order for the Eagles to win their sixth crown.
Ravena will find no Slaughter to dish to in the paint and no Salva to hoist a 17-footer that is almost money, but he will perform well under the spotlight and is there to challenge Parks and Abdul for the MVP plum. He will do everything for his squad, but whether this will be enough to give Ateneo their sixth title remains to be seen.