UP Fighting Maroons
A little over a year ago, a bonfire was held at the UP Sunken Garden. It wasn’t a celebration of the school’s first title since 1986, but rather, a celebration of the first win for the Fighting Maroons since Season 75. The team had a chance to add to that victory in the second round, but simply couldn’t finish off teams like Ateneo and their first round victim, the Adamson Falcons.
But the new season, along with a new logo and look for the team, has carried with it a wave of optimism that washed over the team and its supporters. They believe that their time has come, and they’ve made it known in the UAAP Press Conference: the Fighting Maroons are aiming for no less than the Final Four in Season 78.
1.) Who is a player to watch out for this team?
Paul Desiderio was unable to play for the Fighting Maroons last season, as he focused on his duties for the national team. But now that his tour of duty for Batang Gilas is over, he has now set his sights on helping his school. He already showed his wares during the preseason, as he finished second in the team in scoring (13 points per contest).
And just last June, Desiderio dropped 17 points against the Pampanga Foton Tornadoes to lead his team, Quezon City-University of the Philippines, to the championship of the Filsports Basketball Association (FBA) Unity Cup. He may only be in his second year, but with international exposure and renewed focus, expect him to provide a lot of offense for the Maroons.
2.) How do they stack up against the Green Archers?
The teams met early in the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup, when it was Andrei Caracut and Prince Rivero who led the Archers to a hard-fought 82-79 overtime victory. The Maroons were led by Jett Manuel (their scoring leader in the preseason) and the returning Desiderio. Coach Juno Sauler elected to play his rookies for long stretches during the game, and Caracut took advantage and made clutch baskets for La Salle to give his team the win.
As long as the Archers are not lulled into complacency when facing UP, and if they move the ball and hit their outside shots (where they will be more dependent as compared to previous years), then they should be able to overcome the Fighting Maroons.
This year’s hosts indeed feel positive about their chances this year, but let’s not forget that this is a team that won just one of its eight games in the preseason. The ACL injury suffered by former Rookie of the Year Kyles Lao will deprive them of one of their best scorers, but with the return of Manuel, Desiderio, and with players like Dave Moralde, Diego Dario, and JR Gallarza, scoring really isn’t this team’s problem.
Coach Rensy Bajar has made it known that this team will put an emphasis on improving its defense in its preparation, and if they are able to make stops and keep games close, they might be able to score some wins against the Final Four contenders. But if they remain a sieve on the defensive end, then it will be difficult for the Fighting Maroons to win more than three or four games.
Mark Barroca. Mac Baracael. Terrence Romeo. RR Garcia. Aldrech Ramos. These are just some of the players who have donned the FEU jersey in the last few years and have gone on to play in the pros and the national team. However, not one of these players was able to win the championship for the Tamaraws, which last won the title in 2005, when it was bannered by the likes of Arwind Santos, Denok Miranda, and Mark Isip.
Mike Tolomia and Mac Belo came close to winning the title last year and do what those aforementioned names were unable to accomplish, only to lose in the deciding Game 3 of the Finals against the NU Bulldogs. But in the days leading to the start of Season 78, this team was constantly mentioned as the odds-on favorite to win the title. And though head coach Nash Racela only shrugged off the ‘favorite’ tag, it’s not hard to see why experts see the Tamaraws as the team to beat this season.
1.) Why are the Tamaraws considered to be the favourite to win the UAAP title this season?
This is a team whose only significant loss is last year’s team captain Carl Bryan Cruz and Anthony Hargrove. Their new import, the 6-10 Prince Orizu, will likely match Hargrove’s output, as he averaged five points and seven rebounds in the preseason. Fourth-year player Raymar Jose, who only contributed four points and two rebounds last season, has already emerged as the third-best scorer for the team behind Tolomia and Belo, norming 9.5 points and hauling down 7.5 boards per contest in the Fil-Oil Cup.
Russell Escoto, who suffered an injury-plagued Season 77, is now finally healthy and showed what he can do in the preseason, scoring nine points and hauling down four boards per game. Former SWU Cobra Monbert Arong will finally make his debut, and will give FEU another scoring option (eight points a game) and another outside threat (10-of-32, 31% from distance in the preseason). And that’s beside Tolomia, who is still this team’s leader, Belo, a Mythical Five member last year who only got better after a stint with the Sinag Pilipinas team this summer, and Roger Pogoy, who can score, grab rebounds, and play defense for this team.
2.) How do they stack up against the Green Archers?
After clashing in the Final Four, the Archers and the Tamaraws likewise met in the semifinals of the PCCL last November and the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup last June, with La Salle winning both games handily. However, it should be noted that in both meetings, Mac Belo was unable to suit up for his team, as he played for his PBA D-League team during the PCCL and played for the national team in the SEA Games (along with Head Coach Nash Racela) during the Fil-Oil Cup.
The DLSU team that competed in the PCCL was led by Ben Mbala, who has since been declared ineligible to play this season by the UAAP board. None of the nine rookies for the Archers were a part of that team, while players like Monbert Arong and Jojo Trinidad, who were still serving their residency back then, did not play for FEU. The semifinal clash between the two teams in the preseason, however, featured most of the players included in their final line-ups submitted, except for Belo for the Tamaraws, and Prince Rivero (also part of the national team), Andrew Langston, and Leo Joson for the Archers.
Those who witnessed La Salle play in the preseason are aware that this team scores a lot of buckets (they finished the tournament as the highest scoring team), and that they score a lot of points from the three-point area (around seven makes a game). They were able to do both against the Tamaraws in the preseason, and will likely try to use a similar blueprint in the UAAP. Games between FEU and DLSU have always been closely contested, but if La Salle can make their perimeter shots like they did in these games, it will make them a less predictable team on offense.
This is arguably the best FEU team since 2010, when they had the likes of Garcia, Romeo, Ramos, Reil Cervantes, Ping Exciminiano, JR Cawaling, and Paul Sanga (all of whom played in the pros). Tolomia, Belo, and Pogoy will all be playing in their final years, and with the arrival of recruits that can immediately make an impact and with the development of some of their other veterans, it seems like the perfect time for the Tamaraws to bring the title back to Morayta.
But for this team to win the title, their bench players have to contribute. In last year’s Finals, the team did not generate a lot of offense outside of Belo and Tolomia. Pogoy, after a brilliant Game 1, scored just four points the rest of the way. Achie Iñigo, Ron Dennison, and Jose were likewise unable to ease the scoring load in the last two games of the title series. The team will now have more options with the return of the Russell Escoto plus the arrival of Arong and Orizu. Belo and Tolomia are the leaders of this team and will find ways to put points on the board, but it’s their supporting cast that needs to step up if they wish to end a decade-long title drought.
If Bong Galanza’s three-pointer splashed through the net instead of clanging against the rim, it would be the UE Red Warriors who would enter the Final Four. If J-Jay Alejandro didn’t decide to have his coming out party in the first Final Four match against Ateneo, the Blue Eagles would have advanced to the Last Dance. If Alfred Aroga didn’t block Kiefer Ravena’s shot, that game could have gone into overtime. If Mac Belo replicated his output in the Final Four in the Finals, those games could have probably gone either way.
But none of those things happened. The Bulldogs survived the onslaught of a UE team that won six of seven games in the second round, repelled a Blue Eagles team that had topped the elimination round, and hammered an FEU team that drew first blood in the Finals and had just sent the defending champions packing. Oh, and the Bulldogs won the title even after the departure of two-time MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr. and Mythical Five member Emmanuel Mbe.
It was the ultimate underdog story, a culmination of a journey from mediocrity to respectability, and finally, ascendancy. But with the other teams retooling, and the Bulldogs losing two players that landed in the Top 10 of the PBA Draft (Troy Rosario was taken by the Mahindra Enforcers at No. 2, while Glenn Khobuntin was selected by the NLEX Road Warriors at No. 10), the road to a back-to-back championship will be arduous for NU.
1.) How will the Bulldogs blunt the impact of losing guys like Rosario, Khobuntin, and Henri Betayene?
Both players combined for roughly 25 points and 20 rebounds, which won’t be easy to replace. But if the preseason is any indication, some of the team’s holdovers have already improved their game to alleviate the scoring load of Gelo Alolino and Finals MVP Alfred Aroga. Their replacement for Betayene, the 6-8 Issa Gaye, already averaged eight points and nine boards in eight preseason games in the Fil-Oil Cup.
J-Jay Alejandro, who hit timely threes in the Final Four against Ateneo last season, has already emerged as the team’s second leading scorer next to Alolino, hitting 11 of his 38 three-pointers in the preseason (38%). Senior Reden Celda, who played just eight minutes per game and scored just two points in Season 77 has hiked up his averages to nine points and five rebounds a game while playing 17 minutes. The Bulldogs may have lost most of their frontline, but the arrival of Gaye as well as the development of their veteran guards ensures that the team will still have contributors on offense.
2.) How do they stack up against the Green Archers?
Both La Salle and NU joined the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup, but they were not grouped together. The Bulldogs failed to make it past the elimination round, finishing with a 4-4 win-loss record, while the Archers went to finish second in the tournament behind San Beda. The last couple of times these two teams met were their matches during the elimination round in Season 77. It should be noted that La Salle was the only team that NU was unable to defeat last season, with their first meeting being decided by a nakaw play from Jeron Teng to Jason Perkins, and their second round match being more of a team effort for the Archers as they cruised to a comfortable victory.
But that La Salle team had Van Opstal and Torres to match-up with Aroga and Rosario. This year, La Salle will have to rely on Abu Tratter, Jason Perkins, Larry Muyang, John Gob, and maybe Leo Joson to keep Aroga and Gaye in check. Alolino also has a knack of playing his best games against the Archers, so it is up to Julian Sargent and the other DLSU guards to contain him. Only then will they have a chance to topple the defending the champions.
Losing two of its top four scorers will still be felt by the Bulldogs, but this is a team that doesn’t have to score a lot to win. Especially if they are able to clamp down on their opponents and hold them to make only around 35% of their shots. Aroga and Gaye will still take turns in guarding the rim for the Bulldogs, while players like Javelona and the returning Jeoff Javillonar will still make life miserable for opposing guards.
Aroga and Alolino will still be the most important players for the Bulldogs. But if players like Celda and Alejandro can contribute to the team the way they did in the preseason, and Gaye can exceed the contributions of Betayene, then the Bulldogs will be in the hunt for one of the top two seats in the semis that hold the coveted twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four. Without a doubt, copping a second straight title will be difficult for NU, especially with FEU parading an intact core and La Salle and Ateneo also debuting talented recruits. But this is a team that has been tested by five do-or-die games last season, so it’s hard to bet against these Bulldogs.