Green Archers UAAP 82 Preview : Another shot at redemption

Season 81 Summary: Finished the elimination round with an 8-6 record; tied for 4th seed in the Final Four with UP and FEU; lost to FEU in the playoff for the 4th seed.

Losses: Kib Montalbo, Santi Santillan, Taane Samuel, Mark Dyke, Jollo Go, Miggy Corteza, Gabe Capacio

Additions: Joel Cagulangan, Tyrus Hill, Kurt Lojera, Ralph Cu, Jordan Barlett, Keyshawn Evans, Jamie Orme, James Laput, Francis Escandor, Donn Lim

Returning Players: Justine Baltazar, Andrei Caracut, Aljun Melecio, Encho Serrano, Joaqui Manuel, Brandon Bates

Background:


November 21, 2018.

Score: La Salle – 70, FEU – 71. Time Remaining: 3.1 seconds.

Coach Louie Gonzalez designed a great play. Aljun Melecio threw a great pass. Kib Montalbo dashed towards Melecio, as if to receive the pass, while Encho Serrano also ran towards the inbounder, giving Santi Santillan just enough space to catch the lob, gather himself, and attempt a shot just under the basket.

But despite being initially caught off-guard, FEU’s big men recovered, bothering the former UV Green Lancer just enough to make him miss as the ball hit the rim once before bouncing harmlessly away as the final buzzer sounded. The miss sent the Tamaraws to the Final Four and prematurely ended the Green Archers’ season as the team missed the semifinals for the first time since 2015.

In a way, the play summarized the team’s season, a microcosm of their entire 2018 campaign.

Two weeks before the bitter loss to FEU, the team was coming off a win over the NU Bulldogs, which gave them an 8-4 record, good enough for third place and keeping them in the hunt for a twice-to-beat advantage with two games to play. But back-to-back losses to Ateneo and UP sent the team crashing into a playoff for the fourth spot against the Tamaraws.

And then there were the injuries. Big man Taane Samuel was supposed to help fill the void left by 2-time UAAP MVP Ben Mbala, but he suffered a Jones fracture on his left foot in the team’s first game against FEU. Team captain Kib Montalbo also struggled with injuries all season. The team was able to do a lot, especially considering the personnel losses they had prior to the season. But there was a sense that they could have done more, that they could have made more noise and could have gone further.

A year later and the team will have a chance to do that, but they will have to do it with a new coach, new active consultant, and new players that are determined to bring the team back into title contention.

Three Questions:

1. How will the team deal with the departure of Coach Louie Gonzalez?

With the departure of Gonzalez, the Green Archers have had four head coaches in the last five years, and six in the last decade. But perhaps none of those coaches have the credentials of active consultant Jermaine Byrd. The American has previously served as an assistant coach for NBA G-League teams Tulsa 66ers, Sioux Falls Skyforce, and the LA D-Fenders while also serving in the same capacity for Team USA during the 2011 Pan-Am Games. Aside from stints in the G-League and Team USA, Byrd has also been a player development coach in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) for the Samsung Blue Minx and Goyang Orions.

But while Byrd comes in with a lot of experience abroad, the team will also bank on familiarity with the hire of head coach Gian Nazario. Nazario has been a longtime assistant of Boris Aldeguer at De La Salle-Zobel and also served as an assistant coach to Joe Silva with the UE Red Warriors last season. He is already familiar with some of the team’s players, including Aljun Melecio, a former Junior Archer.

Nazario and Byrd already coached the team to a runner-up finishes in the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup and the Kadayawan Sports Festival Invitational Basketball Tournament in Davao. But the real test will come in the UAAP, as they look to bring the Green Archers back to the Final Four.

2. How will the team deal with the loss of Montalbo and Santillan?

Despite dealing with injuries throughout the season, the loss of Montalbo is significant, as he was a leader of the team on and off the court. He may not have helped the Archers to another title, but no one would question his effort as he left everything out on the court whenever he played. Santillan, meanwhile, complemented Justine Baltazar on offense and was one of the team’s underrated players, who did more than just score and rebound.

The team will have 10 new players this season, but the good thing about them is that most of them are either transferees, post-graduate students, or call-ups from Team B, with former NCAA Juniors MVP Joel Cagulangan of La Salle-Greenhills being the team’s only true freshman heading into Season 82.

Montalbo’s former backcourt partners Aljun Melecio and team captain Andrei Caracut will look to fill in the void left by the Man of Steal, while Cagulangan and former NU Bulldog Jordan Bartlett will likely share ball handling duties. As for Santillan, Justine Baltazar will carry a heavier burden entering the season, and he has proven to be up to the task by winning MVP honors at the Oil-Oil Preseason Cup.

3. How far can this team go?

For the second straight year, La Salle will enter the season without being tagged as one of the favorites to make the Final Four or the Finals. Aside from the UE Red Warriors, the Archers will be the only other team who will have a new coach heading into Season 82, while also having to integrate 10 new players, including three one-and-dones who only joined the team months prior to the start of the season.

The high turnover of players and even the coaches have caused people to overlook the Green Archers as a title contender, but the team has shown before that it can perform well despite dealing with a lot of changes. The squad was able to make the Fil-Oil Preseason Cup Finals despite missing key players such as Tyrus Hill and Cagulangan, and the development shown by players such as Melecio, Baltazar, and Encho Serrano have been encouraging.

Recent history has also shown that the Archers usually bounce back the year after missing the Final Four. After an early end to their 2009 season, the team returned to the Semifinals as the fourth seed in 2010. After a dismal end to their 2011 season, the team was back in the postseason the very next year. And after a bitter end to their 2015 season, the team marched all the way to the UAAP crown in 2016.

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Outlook:

It was only three years ago when the Green Archers were last atop the UAAP mountain. But the spate of changes that the team has had since then have made it seem much longer. Fortunately, a new year and a new season presents a chance for the team to redeem itself and make the rest of the league remember La Salle’s recent past.

Caracut, Melecio, and Baltazar are the only remaining members of that dominant 2016 DLSU team, and they will need to lead the rest of this young team to reach their full potential. In his final year, Caracut will look to recapture the form that made him the league’s Rookie of the Year and one of the league’s most promising guards, while Melecio and Baltazar hope to flash the deadly forms that they showed in the preseason.

The loss of players like Montalbo, Santillan, Dyke, and Go is huge, but they will be replaced by young and equally talented players who are eager to prove their worth. Transferees like Bartlett, Lojera, and Hill are expected to make a quick impact for the team, but its the addition of guard Keyshawn Evans, swingman Jaime Orme, and big man James Laput that could unlock a new dimension for the team.

How quickly they adjust to their roles and how quickly the coaches can integrate them with the rest of the team could determine how far the Archers can go in the season.

Featured image courtesy of Animo Magazine
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