UAAP 81 Preview: DLSU Green Archers: It’s all about trusting (and speeding up) the process

Season 80 Summary: Finished the elimination round with a 12-2 record; 2nd seed in the Final Four; defeated 3rd-seeded Adamson in the Final Four; lost to top-seeded Ateneo in the Finals;

Losses: Ben Mbala (currently playing overseas), Ricci Rivero (transferred to UP), Prince Rivero (currently playing in the MPBL), Brent Paraiso (transferred to UST), Ramil Tero (transferred to San Sebastian), Abu Tratter (graduation), Josh Gonzales (currently playing in the MPBL)

Additions: Brandon Bates, Miggy Corteza, Mark Dyke (returnee), Joaqui Manuel, Taane Samuel, Encho Serrano

Holdovers: Justine Baltazar, Gabe Capacio, Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, Aljun Melecio, Kib Montalbo, Santi Santillan


Background:

Kib Montalbo has been here before.

He was also part of a Green Archers team that underwent a surprising coaching change before the season started.

He was previously a member of a La Salle squad that was also underestimated and not seriously considered as a title contender.

He had also played for a team that had just 13 players in its lineup, despite the UAAP allowing up to 16 names to be included in a team’s roster.

One notable difference is that back in 2013, Montalbo was a rookie out of Bacolod who joined a team that already had veterans. Back then, his task was to provide quality minutes to the likes of LA Revilla, Almond Vosotros, and Thomas Torres.

Five years later and he is the last remaining player from that La Salle team that won it all in Season 76. Now, his task is to lead a young squad as he tries to end his collegiate career with a third title. And make no mistake, this will be his toughest challenge yet. Because ever since losing in the Season 80 Finals to Ateneo after three hard-fought games, these Green Archers have known almost nothing but change.

The team was supposed to bring back an almost intact roster into Season 81, with only Abu Tratter graduating. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. Gone is two-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala. So, too, is Mythical Five member and Most Improved Player Ricci Rivero. Prince Rivero, Brent Paraiso, and Josh Gonzales have also left the team. And that’s not including the loss of head coach Aldin Ayo, who will join the UST Growling Tigers after two years as the Archers’ chief tactician.

Three Questions:

1. How will the team deal with the departure of Aldin Ayo?

Louie Gonzalez is a name that may not be familiar to some, but he is far from an inexperienced coach. Gonzalez has been coaching since the late 1990s, and has previously served as an assistant with the FEU Tamaraws, the Letran Knights in the NCAA, the Globalport Batang Pier (now NorthPort Batang Pier), and the Kia Sorrento (now Columbian Dyip) in the PBA.

The La Salle management banked on familiarity in hiring Gonzalez as the team’s new head coach, as he has served as the Green Archers’ assistant coach under Ayo in the last two years. This is similar to the team’s decision to appoint then assistant Juno Sauler as the team’s head coach after the departure of Gee Abanilla in 2013. It was a surprising decision at the time, but it ended up bringing the UAAP title back to Taft Avenue.

It remains to be seen whether Gonzalez can duplicate that feat, as he will be handling a relatively younger La Salle team. But with him as coach, the team will be guided by someone who is familiar with the players as well as Ayo’s Mayhem system, which he has been credited
as the architect.

2. How will the team deal with the loss of all those players?

38.7 points, 18.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. Those are the combined per game averages of Ben Mbala and Ricci Rivero last season, and those numbers will not be easy to replace. No one player on the team can duplicate the impact that Mbala had for the Archers, but thankfully,
there are several big men who can fill the void left by the two-time MVP.

Justine Baltazar, the UAAP Jrs. Finals MVP two years ago, has emerged from the shadow of Mbala and is poised for a breakout year in Season 81. He showed flashes of what he can do in the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup, helping the team reach the quarterfinals and making it to the Mythical Five. Other big men who can step up for the Archers are rookies 6-foot-8 Taane Samuel, 6-foot-8 Brandon Bates, and a familiar face in 6-foot-5 Santi Santillan, who Blue Eagles coach Tab Baldwin called as “quickly becoming my favorite player in the Philippines.”

As for Rivero, the team’s backcourt will still have the likes of Montalbo, Andrei Caracut, and Aljun Melecio, who is raring to bounce back after missing some of the team’s games last season due to dengue. Another interesting addition to the team’s backcourt is former Adamson Baby Falcon Encho Serrano, who was considered the country’s best high school player two years ago after averaging 19.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in his lone season for the Falcons.

3. Is this team really not good enough to make the Final Four?

Any team that loses an MVP, its rising star, several key contributors, and its head coach before the season is going to face doubts, but if there’s a team that can handle these losses, it’s the Green Archers. The team’s backcourt is still mostly intact, while the arrival of Samuel, Bates, plus the development of Baltazar and Santillan allows coach Louie Gonzalez to trot out an imposing frontline.

Historically, winning 8 or 9 games in the elimination round has been enough to earn a Final Four ticket, and the Green Archers can certainly reach that mark. This is not the same team that won 12 games and marched to the Finals last year, but it still has enough holdovers and promising young talents to reach the semifinals.

Outlook:

When Montalbo, Caracut, or Melecio dribble the ball downcourt for the Archers in their first game against FEU, they won’t find Mbala patrolling the shaded lane and waiting for a pass for an easy bucket. They won’t find Rivero, who could easily Euro-step his way to the hoop. But what they’ll find are their teammates who played behind Mbala and Rivero who will now have their time in the spotlight.

These guards will instead find Baltazar, Santillan, and Samuel under the basket, ready to being bodies against opposing big men. They will find Jollo Go behind the arc, ready to pull the trigger. Or they themselves can take the scoring cudgels for the team. The loss of Mbala and Rivero makes the team more vulnerable, but also makes the offense more unpredictable. With a lot of talent left and an able coach guiding them, the team is still capable of reaching the Final Four. Where they go from there depends on how quickly the young players can adapt to their new roles.

It All Begins Here: The Green Archers begin their UAAP Season 81 campaign against a familiar foe, the FEU Tamaraws, on Sunday, September 9, at 12 noon at the Mall of Asia Arena.

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