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.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Semper Fidelis

A look at the Ateneo Blue Eagles' 2008 UAAP Campaign
by rick olivares

If the Ateneo Blue Eagles are to be likened to a warship, you could say that they were once like an aircraft carrier bristling with enough firepower and a payload to nuke an entire basketball continent. This year’s 16-man line-up is nothing of that elegant sort. They’re more like a marine amphibious landing vehicle ready to discharge a platoon of veterans and newbies who are expected to slog their way inland towards a UAAP championship.

The onus is on Norman Black to win a title. He’s been handed a talented yet at once flawed team that still hasn’t found its rhythm with players coming in and out of the line-up. But he’s got good problems. After all, they won the Nike Summer League without hitting on all cylinders and that should say a lot about the team’s potential. And make no mistake, they’ve got a very high basketball IQ and the staunchest heart of any college team in the land bar none. The start of the UAAP season should augur well for them because the waiting was always the hardest part.

And now… now is the time for action.

Grunt work
Every year since 2004, the team has had to answer questions about who will carry the team and for this campaign; there seem to be more of them. Chief among the inquiries is, “Who’s going to provide that post-presence the team so desperately needs for Black’s system of passing and cutting to work?”

Ford Arao was the surprise package of last year and his strong post presence, the team’s first true lane threat since Enrico Villanueva was the sheriff of these parts. Arao will be severely missed. Case in point, it was his drawing three defenders against UST in last year’s second round that saw him whip the ball out to Kirk Long who ripped the cords over Jervy Cruz who was a milli-second too late in recovering. And Zion Laterre likewise gave the team badly needed interior defense as well as dozens of second servings on the offensive end.

After nearly becoming the breakout star of the team with a stellar first round, Jobe Nkemakolam found himself riding the bench and post-UAAP, relegated once more to Team B. A much slimmer Nkemakolam is now back in harness but he has lost none of the power and desire to play inside the trenches of the shaded area. If he gets going inside the pit, it will give Nonoy Baclao more precious minutes on the bench where he can’t be whistled for phantom fouls. It will also open up the floor for Rabeh Al-Husseini who although has yet to prove that he can guard someone can chip in some huge markers. And Mike Baldos could be a part of the answer to the riddle of the middle if he can break down his man a lot quicker with his drop step and McHale-ish moves.

Ryan Buenafe will be the first rookie to regularly start for the Blue Eagles since Enrico Villanueva in 1998 (Magnum Membrere occasionally started under Joe Lipa in 2000) and that says a lot about this young man who was the subject of an intense recruiting war between five schools. It’s no secret that he’s not quicksilver fast, but he’ll make up for it by beating his man with a cross-over and a lay-in or pull up jumper. The way Buenafe reads the game and Black’s system shows belies a rare headiness in so young a player. The way he demands the ball; well, here’s your future go-to guy.

Nico Salva is another tough rookie who isn’t afraid to take his lumps. He can pass, defend, slash, or hit the fadeaway shot.

The great thing about getting blue chip rookies is the knowledge that they were all previously “The Man” in their respective high school squads. It means they all know what is demanded from them to lead their team and they can put points on the board because right now the team needs steady production from either its vets or froshes.

Following a terrible loss to San Sebastian in a post-UAAP game in 2004, then-coach Sandy Arespacochaga took Chris Tiu aside to demand more leadership from the then-prized recruit. Tiu has come a long way from that game where he passed up one too many open shots including a possible game winner that ended up as a turnover. In truth, it wasn’t that Tiu didn’t want to shoot but he was trying to help his teammates get into the offense. This year’s King Eagle is one heck of a playmaker and he has remarkably grown as a leader in the clutch. Coming back for his final year with the team, he knows that what they have here is a very good team that should soon hit its stride. His ability to hit that last shot and to make his teammates better will see him as the focal point of any opponent’s defense. Fortunately, basketball is a team game and there’s Jai Reyes, that bantam-sized guard who plays a similar game. What Reyes lacks in height he more than makes up for with his heart and three-point daggers. Look for him to come off the bench for either Tiu or for Kirk Long.

And there’s Eric Salamat, the team’s backpack nuke who is ready to strap the team to his back in the charge up the hill. He’s a pest on defense and always likes a challenge from his opposing numbers across the league.

Force recon
Kirk Long is this year’s starting point guard. But after a great rookie year, Long has struggled to find consistency in his quarterbacking and in his scoring in the Champions League, FilOil, and the Nike Summer League. Literally a growing boy, the sophomore out of Faith Academy needs to hit the outside because at this point, foes are daring him to shoot. His height is practically an advantage as it helps him see over smaller guards, but Long should make better decisions with the ball.

Yuri Escueta is on his swan song year. While he will never be a scoring guard, it’s his playmaking and defense that make him valuable to the Blue Eagles’ title aspirations.

Ateneo fans have bemoaned the lack of fluidity of the team’s game that began with an inspired run to the Final Four of the UAAP and culminated with an impressive run to the 2007 Collegiate Champions League crown. The team can get by with Tiu running the point but it takes away too much from his offense. Reyes has his moments but finds it tough when matched up against taller guards. Long and Escueta should establish their leadership early on and direct the game the way Magic Johnson described and defined the point guard position – he should be the creator. Period.

And if they were feared defensively last year as they hosted weekly block parties on weak-ass bricklayers, they’re a little more suspect this year. Sure Nonoy Baclao is a one-man SWAT Team out there but the others have to provide more than matador defense and they have amazing fact here is, they have to be more consistent at it. They play in spurts and stretches which isn’t good because it isn’t everyday that one’s fighting heart can fuel a rally. But collectively, their defense still stingy despite the loss of Arao and Laterre are as good as anyone in the league.

On offense, the Blue Eagles aren’t as fluid as we’re used to seeing them. But of course, there are five newcomers and that’s bound to throw a monkey wrench somewheres.

They’ve got the talent, the heart, and the motivation to win it all. Now it’s all about holding up in this most crucial first round -- a feeling out period with only room for one or two losses lest another complicate things in this year of great parity. If they do so they could figure for a Final Four spot that will be hotly contested by just about every team. There are no guarantees since every other squad out there improved their line-up. The Blue Eagles will be in a dogfight every game.

And now… now is the time for action.

Projected starting line-up:
Center: Rabeh Al-Husseini
Forwards: Nonoy Baclao and Ryan Buenafe
Guards: Kirk Long and Chris Tiu

Sixth man: Eric Salamat

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