Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, October 16, 2006

CCL: They Might Be Giants

For the longest time, US college basketball was way more popular than the NBA. It took the entrance of the star forward from the Indiana State Sycamores and the Michigan State Spartans in the 1979-80 season to revive interest in the pro game. The NBA has since grown from the drug-addled stupor of the 70’s to a prefab global brand but US college hoops remains wildly popular and more so when March Madness (the 64-team NCAA tourney) begins. In fact, the madness in the NCAA’s virtual win-or-go-home format isn’t mere hype… it’s a way of life.

Domestically, in the mind of Johnny Q. Public, the soupcon of alphabet college leagues is dominated by the UAAP and the local version of the NCAA as the very best in the land. Never mind that in the south there are just as many talented or even better teams plying their trade in near anonymity.

All that is about to change.

The Collegiate Champions League (CCL) is on its fourth straight year (and first with the new format). It pits the best teams of the UAAP, NCAA, NCRAA, NAASCU, UCAA, CSAFI, NOPSCEA, and DCAA in a Sweet Sixteen affair to declare the one true national champion. For the first time in years, it’s the actual Team A (or the school’s best line-ups) that are fielded in the competition. It’s also the first year that wild card berths were awarded. And it’s the first time the media was brought in to the mix by seeding the teams by voting.

The crowds have turned out and the games have been tremendously exciting yet there is still the perception that it’s just the CCL. As Solar Sports’ VP for Sports Marketing Jude Turcuato opines that the CCL cannot compete with 60 and 80 years of tradition. What it can do is create the tournament where the one true National Champion is declared. The plan to change people’s perceptions isn’t going to be accomplished overnight. It’s a three-year plan to make it just as popular as the other leagues if not the most popular.

For the millions of followers of the US NCAA’s, there are two questions that come to mind when the tourney begins: 1) Who will be this year’s National Champion and 2) Which highly-fancied teams will be upset by some virtual unknowns? Teams like Valparaiso, Gonzaga, and George Mason don’t have the TV time and media attention of traditional powers like Duke, UConn, or Kentucky to name a few. But they’ve made their own stirring runs in the standings and into American national consciousness. In fact, Gonzaga, previously known in trivia games as all-time NBA great John Stockton’s alma mater, has since the late 90s become a mainstay in the tourney bringing it much national attention and an influx of dollars by tournament fees, royalties, and generous alumni. Its student population has increased and its players (including last year’s NCAA player of the Year Adam Morrison) are no longer unknowns.

This year’s CCL has begun to replicate the excitement of the US NCAA’s. So far, there have been some pretty close matches: University of the East vs. Emilio Aguinaldo College (64-60), San Beda College vs. National University (74-72), and University of Santo Tomas vs. Jose Rizal University (63-65).

As for those looking for Cinderella finishes, there’s the University of Visayas as coached by former pro player al Solis knocking out the Adamson Falcons in Bogs Adornado’s Head Coaching debut 70-67, and the tourney’s giant-killer… JRU.

JRU marched into newly-crowned UAAP champion the UST Growling Tigers’ home floor in EspaƱa and not only knocked them around black-and-blue but celebrated on the Tigers’ floor after a highly improbable 65-63 win. The Heavy Bombers bombed out of the last NCAA campaign with a 4-10 record and availed of the three wild card berths for the CCL. They haven’t only turned heads but they’ve played terrific defense. JRU held UST to 0-18 field goal shooting the 4th quarter of their match (UST’s only points were two freebies from the lane by Dylan Ababou) while coming back from a double-digit deficit to win.

Last Saturday, October 14, the Heavy Bombers struck again by blindsiding NCAA foe Letran 64-58. Letran, proud owners of 16 NCAA titles with a seven-game win skein against the Shaw Boulevard-based squad dating back to 2003 was suckered out of their slick pound-it-inside game and was forced to take 21 three-point attempts (as opposed to JRU’s 15 attempts). Now what makes this point interesting is that the three-pointer is JRU’s primary weapon. JRU’s stingy defense forced the Knights into 34% field goal shooting as Floyd Dedicatoria (who finished 2nd to SBC’s Sam Ekwe in NCAA MVP voting) and JM Wilson took it right into the heart of Letran’s defense to continue the Heavy Bombers’ Cinderella run into this tournament.

That same day, the #8 seed Mapua on the other hand beat the #1 seed Ateneo De Manila 70-66 in the last game of Macky Escalona, JC Intal, and Doug Kramer in Ateneo’s dress blues.

The Final Four cast has been set. It’s San Beda vs. JRU and Mapua vs. UE. Each and every one of them have their own stories heading into the October 19 match-up. And the way this CCL is shaping up, they might be giants of the collegiate basketball scene.

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