It’s an instrument used to measure atmospheric pressure, used primarily in the field of meteorology, hardly having anything to do with dribbling an orange ball and putting it through a hoop ten feet above the ground, and yet it’s something that one of the opposing coaches branded the Green Archers heading into the UAAP’s 77th Season: A barometer.
About a year ago, La Salle stumbled into the Hunger Games-themed opening ceremonies of the UAAP facing a lot of questions: They had fizzled out of the Fil-Oil preseason tournament after a fast start, lost Yutien Andrada to an injury, and had a coaching change three weeks before the season. Now, they are fresh from winning that same tournament and have welcomed Andrada back into their line-up. And that sudden coaching change? It worked out pretty well, since Juno Sauler was able to deliver the UAAP Championship trophy back to Taft Avenue after seven years.
This year, they’ll have the same group of guys, with only LA Revilla leaving the team to turn pro. Jeron Teng, fresh from a Finals MVP performance, is only on his third year, and seeing him nail jumpers and three-point shots in the preseason means that he improved one dimension of his game. Almond Vosotros, who always seemed to show up whenever La Salle needed him, will be back in his final year. Jason Perkins, Norbert Torres, Arnold Van Opstal, Thomas Torres, and the rest of the team’s championship core will likewise be back. Only this time, they’ll have something they didn’t have before: A year of championship experience.
The team didn’t exactly rest on its laurels during the offseason either, as they will be parading four rookies along with the returning Andrada. On the sidelines, joining Sauler as one of his assistants will be Freddy Abuda, a former player and assistant of the Brgy. Ginebra Kings in the PBA.
Back in October, on the cramped stage in the midst of the Henry Sy. Building, while everyone basked in the warm glow of La Salle’s victory, Sauler made a promise: “We will be better next season.”
And you only need to glance at the team’s line-up, its players, and their performances during preseason tournaments to know that he intends to keep this promise.
1.) Prince Rivero, Terrence Mustre, Abu Tratter, and Julian Sargent. That’s a pretty talented batch of rookies who will be suiting up for La Salle. What can we expect from them?
Sargent has seen the most minutes and made the most impact for the team during the preseason, averaging almost five points, three rebounds and an assist in 16 minutes of action. He can play the two and three, and can be utilized as a perimeter defender. That block on Baser Amer’s step-back three-pointer during the Finals comes to mind. Tratter only averaged seven minutes a game, but still put up two points and two boards.
Rivero, an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the NCAA, normed two points and 1.6 rebounds a contest in nine minutes, while Mustre scored 1.6 points and grabbed 1.3 rebounds in almost nine minutes. These players only suited up for limited minutes, but as Sauler figures out his rotation, expect their roles – and contributions –to increase as the season progresses.
2.) How will the team blunt the impact of the loss of LA Revilla?
Revilla’s scoring will be somewhat easy to replace, since he put of only about five points per contest, although he did increase those numbers to 15 during the back-to-back games against the Tamaraws in the Final Four. It’s his leadership and stability at the point that La Salle will miss. Thomas Torres will likely take his slot in the starting line-up, something he already did in a few games last season and in the preseason.
He has already upped his numbers during the Fil-Oil Cup, averaging almost nine points (fourth in the team), four rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes, though his two turnovers per contest is something of a concern. Kib Montalbo, Terrence Mustre, and Robert Bolick will also likely see time on the floor, with Montalbo already spending about 15 minutes per game.
Look for Vosotros to likewise be tasked with the ballhandling duties, especially in the game’s dying minutes, something he has already done before. He rarely turned the ball over during the preseason (just 1.1 per game in almost 28 minutes of play), ranked second in the team in assists (behind Teng), and always seemed to make the right decision when the leather is in his hands – and even when it wasn’t.
3.) Health-wise, how prepared is this team for the long-grind UAAP Season?
It’s true that some of their players missed games during the preseason because of injuries. Jason Perkins missed their first game against UE, Kib Montalbo missed their game against JRU, and Thomas Torres was out during the three games they played in Cebu. Some players have also been reported to miss a practice session here and there, but all those injuries have been minor and should be of no major concern.
4.) They won the UAAP title last season, before following it up with the PCCL title last December and the Fil-Oil Championship this summer. We should be confident about our chances of winning back-to-back, right?
Not if your coach preaches the Gospel of Constant Improvement like Sauler does. La Salle did manage to win the Fil-Oil crown, but the road to the title was not a smooth one, not by a longshot. During the eliminations, they were down by as much as 17 at the half against the JRU Heavy Bombers, ultimately losing by one, 68-68. Later on, they lost to the Perpetual Help Altas, 98-95, even after leading by as much as 20. And how did the Altas put up 98 points on the scoreboard? One of their players, reigning NCAA Rookie of the Year Juneric Baloria, torched the nets for 43 points, 22 in the fourth.
And before they mounted a comeback against the San Beda Red Lions in the Finals, they were down for most of the game, their offense sputtering against the San Beda defense before they figured things out in the payoff period. La Salle’s defense was stingy at times during the preseason, but the team also had a tendency to relax. Turnovers and a low field goal percentage have also plagued the team even during their wins. Most people forgot about these losses the moment they hoisted the Fil-Oil trophy, but Sauler and the rest of the Archers’ coaching staff are not most people, and are already looking for ways to address these issues.
5.) Which teams could challenge La Salle for Final Four slots and the title?
UST lost its best player and coach, but still has the likes of Karim Abdul, Kevin Ferrer, and Aljon Mariano, along with newcomers who could make an immediate impact like Renzo Subido. FEU lost two MVPs, but had strong PCCL and Fil-Oil campaigns thanks to their high-scoring and team-oriented style of play.
Ateneo has shrouded its UAAP preparations by opting to train overseas, but what’s sure is that their list of rookies reads like a who’s-who of high school standouts: Thirdy Ravena, Arvin Tolentino, Clint Doliguez, John Apacible, and Jay Javelosa. And that’s excluding those waiting in the wings. Add Chris Newsome and a motivated Kiefer Ravena to that list, and you’ve got another potential contender ready to challenge the Archers.
UE will be mentored by Derrick Pumaren, who also steered La Salle to its first two UAAP championships. Roi Sumang, he of the sideburns and fearless drives, will be joined by Charles Mammie and newcomer Moustapha Arafat, and it’s hard to write off a team that has all that. NU lost a lot of players but will welcome Henri Betayene, Alfred Aroga, plus rookies from their champion Bullpups team and players like former Red Cub Rev Diputado. UAAP Commissioner Andy Jao mentioned that he sees a very competitive and open season, and it’s not hard to see why. La Salle is still the clear favorite, but none of these squads are far behind.
When Thomas Torres, Kib Montalbo, or Terrence Mustre dribbles the ball downcourt, he can pound it down low to Van Opstal to post-up his man, or to Perkins at the baseline for a jumper. He can hand it to Teng and let him barrel his way to the basket for a hoop-and-harm bucket, or to Vosotros on the wing for a booming triple. A miss can be tracked down by Norbert Torres or Andrada for a stick-back, and that’s not counting their players who will be coming off the pine.
La Salle does indeed have a stacked line-up, the deepest they’ve had in years, and opposing coaches and sports pundits are already heaping praise on them and setting expectations. And indeed, after winning the championship last year and retooling their roster, make no mistake: This title is theirs to lose.
But if the preseason is any indication, this team is still susceptible to stepping on the break when they’re up by a mile, especially on the defensive end, allowing their opponents to claw their way back into games. The team is also prone to coughing the ball up. These observations on a preseason tournament that they won might seem like nitpicking, but take a look at what Coach Juno himself mentioned during the UAAP Press Conference, when his team was constantly tagged by opposing coaches as the team to beat:
“In my humble opinion, I don’t focus too much on the expectations and opinion of others. Performing every game is what’s important more than expectations.”
So at least for a while, let’s put a hold on those declarations about this team that start with the letter ‘D’ and is closely connected to a long line of successful kings (think Chinese emperors). Instead, let’s try to look at the upcoming season the way Sauler will: A day, a game at a time.