UAAP Season 75 Outlook: The FAVORITES: NU Bulldogs & Ateneo Blue Eagles
Joseph Terso, Marion Magat, Robby Celiz, Spencer Eman
Newbies: Henri Betayene, Mark De Guzman, Tristan Perez, Troy Rosario
Season 74 Record & Finish: 6-8, 5th place
2012 Filoil Record & Finish: 11-0, beat DLSU in the Final to bag the Championship
There’s just one reason the NU Bulldogs went 11-0 in the Filoil tournament – they were just, by far, the best and most consistent squad in the whole 18-team field. They were really awesome.
They were the third-best UAAP team in rebounding (44.6rpg), second-best UAAP team in steals (5.2spg), top 4 overall in free throw shooting (67.3%), and top 2 overall in 3-point shooting (32.8%). NU was also the top team overall in three categories – assists (18.1apg), scoring (79.7ppg), and field goal shooting (44.7%). In terms of team defense, the MOA quintet finished second overall in both opponents’ field goal percentage and points allowed per game. San Beda was the only team better than NU in both categories
Not too shabby, right? I mean, by and large, this is the same team that finished 2 wins shy of a Final Four berth last season. On some level, however, this is also a different NU squad. They seem to have better poise, better decision-making, and they’ve actually become deeper. They are going to be plenty tough in Season 75.
Plenty tough, however, doesn’t mean perfect. Despite great playmaking from Ray Parks and Gelo Alolino, NU was still bitten by the turnover bug, as they coughed up the rock almost 17 times per contest, which placed them in the bottom half of the Filoil field.
That’s largely because they have the most turnover-prone big man in the UAAP – Emmanuel Mbe. Mbe normed a little more than 3 errors per game, which was tops among UAAP slotmen over the summer. If he can cut down on the mistakes while still maintaining his imposing presence on the low block, then a Mythical Selection might be in the offing.
What should work in S75:
Of course, Mbe should not be the only Bulldog for consideration in the Mythical Selection. In fact, the frontrunner not only for the Mythical Team, but also for MVP, is this corner of the world’s version of LeBron James – Ray Parks. Parks is just so darn talented, so gifted with basketball awesomeness, that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him drop a handful of triple-doubles this year.
That’s not to say NU’s a one-man team – far from it. Aside from Mbe being a big plus, other guys expected to play big this year are the vastly-improved Alolino, Denice Villamor, Jeoff Javillonar, and former CSB hotshot Mark De Guzman. De Guzman, in particular, looks poised to complete NU’s own version of a Big Three. He normed an impressive stat line of 9.7ppg, 4.0rpg, and 1.1spg over the summer, including converting 46% of his attempts from three.
Another important positive for the canines of Sampaloc is the fact that they’re pretty much intact from last season. Of the guys who are no longer on the team, only Joseph Terso carried relative significance, and his absence seems to actually bring more good because both Alolino and former UST Tiger Cub Cedrick Labing-isa have really blossomed with the added playing time.
What will be tough in S75:
The exit of Terso, though, also presents an obvious weakness for NU – inexperience. Terso was one of the veteran members of the squad, and, without him, the Bulldogs will have to brace for a season of miscues and bad decisions due to inexperience. This will especially be critical in close games and in the Final Four, which is a stage NU should finally get to after more than a decade of futility. Yes, this is true even if one considers that the core of this team has had one full season under its belt. There is no question NU will be great this year, but will their greatness find its match in their own inexperience?
Another potentially intangible threat is the pressure borne out of going unbeaten in the summer and out of being the hosts of the league’s 75th season. Never has NU hosted on such a grand scale (they have a brand spanking new arena for God’s sake!), and never have expectations been so high. When the Sys invested in NU a few years ago, they envisioned a big change from perennial doormat to perennial powerhouse. We might be looking at year one of that plan coming to fruition.
Without a doubt, NU is the team of the future. They are to Season 75 what the Orlando Magic were to the NBA in 1995 (you know, with Shaq and Penny). But does that mean everything will be served on a silver platter for the hosts, and that they’ll go undefeated again? That’s highly doubtful, but what’s not doubtful is that NU will be a title favorite this season, and, quite possibly, for many more to come. 2nd place.
ATENEO BLUE EAGLES
Emman Monfort, Kirk Long, Bacon Austria, BJ Cipriano, Jeric Estrada
Returnee: Ryan Buenafe
Newbies: G-Boy Babilonia, Nico Elorde, Isaac Lim, Kris Porter
Season 74 Record & Finish: 13-1, beat FEU in the Finals to bag their fourth straight Seniors title
2012 Filoil Record & Finish: 9-3, lost to NU in the semifinals, but beat San Beda in the battle for 3rd place
For a team that many viewed as the runaway best college team in the country, Ateneo’s performance in the preseason was, shall we say, underwhelming. They placed third overall, with a final win-loss record of 8-3. Those three losses came at the hands of San Beda, De La Salle, and NU. We, however, have to take the following into account: Ryan Buenafe didn’t play in Ateneo’s first game against San Beda, and Greg Slaughter wasn’t around against La Salle. Ateneo lost both games with a combined difference of just 5 points.
The stinger was against the Bulldogs, to whom the Eagles lost by 17 points despite a full complement of players. Ateneo was outshot, outrebounded, and just outplayed by the hungrier NU side. And this was at the time Ateneo seemed to be getting better after beating the Tamaraws by 11 in the quarterfinals.
By far, Ateneo is still one of the best teams in college ball, but it seemed like the aura of invincibility that permeated throughout the past few seasons has burst. Still, there were reasons to hope that the Eagle’s drive for a fifth straight UAAP title wasn’t facing a premature end.
Ateneo was the top UAAP team in shooting from the line (67.8%), while also the best team overall in taking care of the basketball. That’s kudos mainly to the quarterbacking of the underrated Juami Tiongson, who will probably surprise a lot of people at the PG spot the way Jai Reyes did in his time. Both were considered pure shooting guards out of high school, and both had endured criticism for their playmaking abilities. Reyes shut them up with the 2008-2009 titles. Now it’s Tiongson’s turn to silence the naysayers.
The Eagles were also pretty good on the defensive end, limiting opposing teams to just 35.1% field goal shooting (third best overall), and, consequently, allowing just 64.5ppg from their foes (fourth best overall).
The great defense, though, wasn’t complemented by the best offense.
The three-pointer was a vaunted piece of Ateneo’s arsenal in their first three title runs, what with Chris Tiu, Emman Monfort, and Reyes taking turns sniping from range. With Monfort finally using up his eligibility, and joining Tiu and Reyes watching from the stands, the onus, once again, is on Tiongson to take and make those open jumpers he ought to have with such crafty inside operators in Greg Slaughter, Nico Salva, and Justin Chua. Early signs, however, point to something ominous. Ateneo averaged just 3 treys per game in the summer, which was worst among all UAAP squads. They were also the second-worst UAAP five in terms of overall scoring, with a mean of just under 67 per outing. Very clearly, it seems like much of the run-and-gun play style that defined the championship teams of recent past won’t be very apparent. That’s also because the Blue & White were the worst overall in steals per game (just 3.1). A dearth of steals, of course, means fewer chances in transition.
This team was also not exactly uberimpressive in the rebounds and assists departments. Ateneo was consistently middle-of-the-pack, which is not the best fuel for dreams of a fifth straight bonfire.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of work yet to be done. The edges are still rough, and the team is not yet in its peak form. The question, really, is will they be able to flash that peak form at the most opportune time?
What should work in S75:
A glance at the Ateneo roster suggests they have a good chance of peaking at the right time, since this is one of the deepest lineups outside of the PBA today. One need not even enumerate the big names currently populating Loyola Heights. They have become that ubiquitous. When it comes to college hoops, the stars of Ateneo have already become household names.
But, okay, if you really twist my arm, then picture this: Nico Salva snares a rebound and rifles an outlet pass to a streaking Kiefer Ravena. Ravena takes just two dribbles to get past his own three-point line and glances at the adjacent quartercourt. Ryan Buenafe just got away from his man and is asking for the ball. He gets it under the basket, where the last opposing defender awaits. The adept playmaker he is, Buenafe takes just a millisecond to bounce the rock to the 7-footer racing down the keyhole. Greg Slaughter deftly catches the ball and slams one home.
Cannot believe it?
Yeah, it’ll be on YouTube a few minutes after the game’s done.
Having said that (ALL THAT), it’s not really Ateneo’s depth that will be its biggest weapon. What other teams really have to look out for are things not even the best UAAP scout can scour the 7,107 isles for – championship experience and championship coaching.
Of the 16 guys on Ateneo’s S75 roster, only the newcomers don’t have any championship experience (duh). Many of the guys on the roster, with the exception of the rookies, Slaughter, Ravena, Von Pessumal, Gwyne Capacio, and Nico Elorde, were on the S73 Ateneo lineup – the team that wasn’t supposed to win because the exodus of Rabeh Al-Hussaini, Noy Baclao, and Jai Reyes should’ve been too much to handle.
The Eagles are in a similar situation now. Without Monfort, Kirk Long, and Bacon Austria, there will surely be a lot of tough and tense moments in the backcourt and at the wings, but I’m certain coach Norman Black will draw from his seemingly bottomless well of tricks to adjust to this.
The bottom-line is Ateneo is too seasoned, too well-coached, to crumble so easily.
What will be tough in S75:
That’s not to say Season 75 will be a walk in the park. It’ll be more like a run through an endless gauntlet with every other team out to thwart the Eagles’ campaign for a historic five-peat.
And there are many things the opposition can exploit to make life hell for the Katipuneros. The most obvious weakness in the roster is definitely at point guard, not because Tiongson and Elorde aren’t good. It’s just that they’re, shall we say, untested. This is almost the exact same way Monfort was untested in Season 73, and I’m confident both Tiongson and Elorde will respond to the challenge well. Don’t expect Tiongson to reel in 5 assists per outing – that’s just not his game. He’ll bring the ball up, call a play, send the ball to Kiefer, Ryan, or even Tonino Gonzaga to orchestrate. Juami will run through screens, curl past picks and square up for the open J. And he will hit it more often than not. Elorde is more of a facilitator. When he played for Zobel in high school, he was known to be able to find the seams in the defense and whizz passes to open teammates. Give him a few games and don’t be surprised to see him do some special things.
What is a little disturbing, though, (yes, I cannot emphasize this enough) is the Eagles’ offense. Considering that this is a team with Slaughter, Salva, and Ravena in the starting unit, and a bench mob led by Buenafe, Gonzaga, and Chua, averaging 66.9ppg is a little disappointing. It’s even more harrowing when one takes into account that the Eagles allowed their foes to score 64.5 per (as mentioned earlier). That’s just about a 2-point difference on average. Needless to say, expect the Eagles to remain favorites in every encounter, but it would be nothing short of folly to expect a ton of blowouts.
The biggest opposition to Ateneo’s Glorify-5 drive is, well, Ateneo itself. Will they let the weight of expectation slow them down and make them weary, or will it be an unparalleled driving force that will propel them to the annals of UAAP lore? If recent history is to be a barometer, then the good bet is on the Eagles to remain kings. Should finish 1st.