|For the second time in three years, Eric Altamirano's NU Bulldogs open the season as favorites. The difference is they now walk with championship pride.|
UAAP Season 78 Men's Basketball Preview
by rick olivares
Adamson Soaring Falcons
Coach: Mike Fermin who once played for UP in the early 1990s. Is in his first year at Adamson.
Season 77 record: 1-13
Losses: Matt Aquino, Alexis Barrera, John Baytan, Harold Butron, Francis Donahue, John Gumtang, Axel Iñigo, Ryan Monteclaro, Jess Pedrosa, Jansen Rios, and Don Trollano. And head coach Kenneth Duremdes.
Holdovers: Christian Garcia, Joseph Nalos, Dawn Ochea, William Polican, Ivan Villanueva
Newcomers: Kristian Bernardo, Simon Camacho, Nico Capote, Jose Carlo Escalambre, Gerald Fernandez, Jerome Garcia, Alvin Margallo, Ken Mark Miranda, Harold Ng, and Gwall Cherif Sarr Soulemane.
Where do you begin with this team?
They practically lost all their scoring and rebounding team from last season. Essentially that was Jansen Rios and Don Trollano.
And there's that valuable game experience -- save for Jospeh Nalos -- they lost as well. And to think before Season 77 they also lost a lot of key players.
For last year's squad, promising rookie Matt Aquino moved to a new zip address that is NU. Their head coach, make that ex-head coach Kenneth Duremdes is out and from all indications it was an acrimonious parting.
So is there any good news?
Hope springs eternal and the Soaring Falcons enter the season well under the radar. It is both good and bad notes first year head coach Mike Fermin.
Good in the sense, it allows his team to grow without the harsh spotlight reserved for veteran and talent-laden teams.
Bad in the sense that, they do not want to stay in the cellar.
It is a young team yet Fermin got them to play hard-nosed basketball during the summer. Players like Dawn Ochea who languished on the bench in previous seasons now had lots of playing time. There sure were a lot of adjustments. However, Fermin likes what he sees.
They've got a good attitude in spite of the odds being stacked against them. And they hope to run and play some small ball.
For them to do that, Cameroonian Gwall Cherif Sarr Soulemane must rebound. Coach Mike has asked his 6'8" center to rebound and protect the rim. He has players -- Ochea, Joseph Nalos, and Frederick Tungcab who is coming off a Mythical Five selection from last season's Juniors UAAP -- to provide some scoring. Some points here and there, a lot of rebounding and defense; Fermin will be happy.
"Unfortunately for us, we learn as we go on," said Fermin. "The summer was a good experience but the UAAP is something else. As long as we can stay close up to the end of the game, we can be satisfied. It is just getting better with every game."
Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles
Coach: Bo Perasol who played for the UP Maroons in the late 80s. In his third year at the Eastern end of Katipunan.
Season 77 record: 11-5 including Final Four
Losses: Anton Asistio, Clint Doliguez, Nico Elorde, Jay Javelosa, Isaac Lim, Chris Newsome, Kris Porter, and Thirdy Ravena.
Holdovers: John Apacible, Gboy Babilonia, Gwyne Capacio, Ponso Gotladera, Von Pessumal, Kiefer Ravena, Arvin Tolentino, and Vince Tolentino.
Newcomers: Aaron Black, Hubert Cani, Chibueze Ikeh, Matt Nieto, Mike Nieto, Jerie Pingoy, Adrian Wong.
Okay, they are arguably a better team than last season. For one, there's more talent and they improved themselves in every position.
Lots of ifs for their frontline that is still suspect. If six-foot-nine Nigerian Chibueze Ikeh can rebound and provide lane defense that would plug a gaping hole in the middle. If Ponso Gotladera can reprise his fireman's role last year that's going to be huge especially now he will slide back and forth from the five and the four. If Arvin Tolentino learns to play some defense that would help immensely. If Big John Apacible can be a little more sure with his under goal stabs and if he is allowed to work inside then he could live up to the promise of his high school days.
There's a disparity between the experience of the veterans like Kiefer Ravena and Von Pessumal and the other holdovers and newcomers. Of the veterans, mention must be made about Gwyne Capacio who has yet to have that breakout season. This is his last chance to do so. Stymied by injury and inconsistent and poor play due to a roller coaster ride of emotions and confidence, he is finally healthy and raring to go. If he can bring consistent scoring and defense to the three-spot, then Bo Perasol will have another reliable player.
However, the Blue Eagles' basketball IQ went up with Cani, the Nieto brothers, and Pingoy in tow. If Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani can solidify that point guard position with passing savvy, creativity, and scoring not to mention perimeter defense they could be the best point guard tandem in the league. How they mesh with their teammates is of great interest since they are players who need to handle the ball in order to be effective. Obviously, you have to give Kiefer the ball. Arvin too lest he get into a funk. So ball and shot distribution is something a lot of people will keenly follow.
This team can shoot from the outside as well. If they find the range early on it will give their inside operators room to apply some surgery.
If the Blue Eagles want to win it all this year, they have to get past NU who they have not beaten in six consecutive outings. During the last Blue Eagle dynasty, NU was tugging at their cape. Now it's on the other way around. For Ateneo to win a title, they will need Ikeh to solidify that middle. If you look at every Ateneo champion, they featured a top-flight center -- Danny Francisco, Rico Villanueva, Rabeh Al-Hussaini, and Greg Slaughter. If Ikeh fits the bill then pencil the Blue Eagles as a big time contender.
The Final Four loss to NU last year especially after losing a twice-to-beat advantage is something that sticks in their craw. And that serves as a lot of motivation to not only get back at their new tormentors that has emerged as their new rival but also to serve as a nice send off for their veteran players.
De La Salle Green Archers
Head coach: Juno Sauler who played for the Green Archers in the mid-90s and is in his third year as head coach.
UAAP Season 77 record: 11-6 including Final Four
Losses: Yutien Andrada, Robert Bolick, Kib Montalbo, Terrence Mustre, Matt Salem, Norbert Torres, Arnold Van Opstal, and Almond Vosotros.
Holdovers: Jason Perkins, Prince Rivero, Julian Sargent, Jeron Teng, Thomas Torres, and Abu Tratter
Newcomers: Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, Jon Gob, Leondro Amiel Langston, Larry Muyang, Loreno Fernando Pascual, and Joshua Torralba.
This team has talent all over. Like Ateneo, the disparity between the experience of the veterans and newer players is theoretically huge. But if you watched them from the summer that wasn't the problem. The ball moved around beautifully. They were making big shots. Their rookies shone. The problem was they were getting beat inside.
Without Arnold Van Opstal and Ben Mbala who DLSU hoped could play, it will be up to Abu Tratter, Larry Muyang, Jon Gob, and Jason Perkins to clog that lane. Tratter is finally showing his form from his Team B days. Perkins seems to be not the same effective player he was from two years ago. But he just might round out into form come UAAP. Once he's on, watch out.
Rivero is vastly improved and it won't be long before he straps this team on to his back.
Another player who is even better -- if that is humanly possible -- is Jeron Teng. He has greatly improved his jump shot and that makes him even deadlier. Still their go-to guy in the crunch.
Andrei Caracut will be Rookie of the Year. La Salle has this penchant or luck of the Irish when it comes to bagging supreme snipers from San Beda. There was Renren Ritualo and Jayvee Casio before and they both won titles. Caracut has the same golden hands. He'll keep defences honest.
For all their losses in personnel you cannot take this team lightly. They'll be competing for the title for sure.
Coach: Nash Racela who is in his third year at the helm of FEU.
Season 77 record: 13-7 including Finals
Losses: Carl Cruz, Jason David, Jesson Delfinado, Vince Denila, Anthony Hargrove, Joel Lee Yu, and Reeve Ugsang.
Holdovers: Mark Belo, Ron Dennison, Russel Escoto, Richard Escoto, Achi Iñigo, Roger Pogoy, Francis Tamsi, and Mike Tolomia.
Newcomers: Monbert Arong, Wendell Comboy, Kevin Ebona, Ken Holmqvist, Steve Holmqvist, Prince Orizu, and Joe Allen Trinidad.
The Tamaraws are better this year. But I believe if they want to go far, they will need Prince Orizu to really play long minutes and contribute significantly. During the summer, he looked lost and was some times inconsequential. The time away after the summer tourneys has however given him more time to adjust. Just how crucial is he?
Well, let's put it this way. If Anthony Hargrove did not pull a disappearing act in last year's Finals, the Tams could be entering Season 78 as defending champs. They need Orizu to battle NU's Alfred Aroga inside.
But the onus isn't only on Orizu. There's Russel Escoto who had a miserable return last season. Outside the amazing Mac Belo, it is Raymar Jose who has become a crucial piece to their frontline puzzle. Jose has improved by leaps and bounds but he is rather undersized to be battling the likes of Karim Abdul and Aroga, hence, Orizu's importance.
Monbert Arong will finally play after serving his residency following a transfer from Southwestern University. Small but built like a linebacker, he's another scorer, a fearless one too.
They'll have two of arguably the best at their position in the league right now with Mike Tolomia and Mac Belo. It's a last hurrah for these two and they are on a mission. Along with Escoto and Ron Dennison, they've been to two finals and have come up empty-handed each time. You bet they're driven.
Roger Pogoy could be their x-factor. He is their utility man who does a little bit of everything from scoring from everywhere to guarding the opposing team's tough scorer. O love what he brought to the table during the summer.
Francis Tamsi didn't have a very good second year with the Tams unlike his debut in S76. If he can approximate what he showed that season and more, he'll be a valuable reserve player for Racela.
A strong favourite to compete for the title. The question though is, who is the Aroga stopper here?
Coach: Eric Altamirano who once played for UP and is on his fifth year with the team.
Season 77 record: 14-6 including Finals
Losses: Raph Atangan, Henri Betayene, JP Cauilan, Glenn Khobuntin, Tristan Perez, and Troy Rosario.
Holdovers: JJ Alejandro, Alfred Aroga, Reden Celda, Rev Diputado, Pao Javelona, Jeff Javillionar, Kyle Neypes, Meds Salim, Ralph Tansingco, and Dave Yu.
Newcomers: Nico Abatayo, Kevin De Castro, Ronnel Lastimosa, Reggie Morido, and Tzaddy Rangel.
Nothing like starting the year as the defending champions and they are favourites to defend the crown. Their manpower losses aside, they have four things going for them: the confidence of a champion, talented newcomers, a very competent coaching staff, and Alfred Aroga.
Many of their players came of age last season: Gelo Alolino, JJ Alejandro, and Reden Celda who previously was in and out of the lineup for the previous seasons. Gelo Alolino went from the verge of being cut from the team to a dependable and important piece of their championship puzzle. Alejandro finally made his presence felt with his timely bombs from the outside.
Kyle Neypes had his moments too. Rev Diputado was a solid pick up for mightily contributed especially from trifecta country.
If they had ceiling last season, this year they don't. Rookie Tzaddy Rangel who is as tall as Aroga at 6'7" will play backstop at the slot. Neypes at 6'4" could slide in or even Salim who stands 6'3".
Over at the backcourt, the Bulldogs are solid at both guard positions. There's Alolino, Diputado, Celda, Pao Javelona, and Alejandro.
Their concern is on the wing. It is hoped that rookie Nico Abatayo could reprise the role of Khobuntin the year before where he was a slasher who could also hit the outside shot. Khobuntin's plus side too was his ability to rebound and play great defense. The returning Jeff Javillionar who is back after missing last season with a knee injury will be counted on to also fill that role (aside from being a defender on the opposing team's top scorer).
I say that another title will heavily depend on Aroga's ability to stay on the floor for crucial stretches and to provide a lot of scoring and defense. If he does so especially if he attacks the opposing center and gets him in foul trouble, NU will be tough to beat.
UE Red Warriors
Head coach: Derrick Pumaren who is on his second year with the team and who once played for both UE and DLSU.
UAAP Season 77 record: 9-6 including Playoffs
Losses: Dan Alberto, Bong Galanza, Daryll Guiang, Ivan Hernandez, Gino Jumao-as, Charles Mammie, Moustapha Arafat, Mark Olayon, and Roi Sumang.
Holdovers: Edgar Charcos, Steven Cudal, RR De Leon, Clark Derige, Chris Javier, Renz Palma, and Paul Varilla.
Newcomers: Nick Abanto, Edson Batiller, Shannon Gagate, Joshua Gonzales, Philip Manalang, Ralph Penuela, Jordan Sta. Ana, Jason Varilla, and Fran Yu.
Man, like NU and Adamson, they lost a lot of key players. And that's practically a lot of their offense and defense. Now this team? They can play defense. The problem is translating the forced turnovers into points. Finishing was a problem all summer. Their two best players - Renz Palma and Paul Varilla are talented but were very inconsistent in their scoring and contributions. Head coach Derrick Pumaren says that his team is more or less at 80% of where they want to be and they have adjusted their offensive woes.
Witness, Jordan Sta. Ana. Late of NU in high school (who was recruited out of Colegio de San Benildo in Antipolo), Sta. Ana had his moments during the summer and he could be just that scoring guard they need to replace Roi Sumang's (who was never comfortable with Pumaren's system) scoring.
Edson Batiler, who they recruited out of Holy Trinity College out of General Santos City could be another source for points. Like the rest of his teammates, consistency, is the challenge.
UE filled up the point guard position by adding NU's Philip Manalang and Chiang Kai Shek's Fran Yu. Both are hard-nosed defenders who can shoot and pass. You can't take them for granted or they will burn you.
The big challenge is for Javier, De Leon, Cudal and Gagate to patrol that lane. They need to not only score but to rebound and provide defense. If they can't do that then they will place so much pressure on the guards and the wingmen to score and defend. You can get away with that in high school but not in college where players are taller.
They were supposed to parade Betrand Awana at center and this behemoth suited up for them in the summer leagues. He was a rim protector whose scoring was an adventure. He's out of the lineup now after Pumaren cut him for an attitude problem. And we all know that Manong Derrick is a stickler for discipline. So that gives UE less size inside.
So the Red Warriors, with their African adventure in shambles (after all that was spent and wasted on Charles Mammie, Moustapha Arafat, and now Awana) will play all-Filipino. It is time for Chris Javier, their captain, to live up to his promise. He has been on and off. Mostly off. In the latter stages of this summer's tourneys, he began to play better. Here's hoping he can continue that into what is his final UAAP season.
This team could pull some surprises.
UP Fighting Maroons
Head coach: Rensy Bajar who played for San Beda in the NCAA
Season 77 record: 1-13
Losses: Darwish Bederi, Carlo Escalambre, Mo Gingerich, Nomer Gonzales, Kyles Lao, Martin Pascual, and Mikee Reyes.
Holdovers: Agustini Amar, Henry Asilum, Diego Dario, JR Gallarza, Andrew Harris, Mark Juruena, Jarrell Lim, Jet Manuel, Dave Moralde, and Gelo Vito.
It used to be, "next year again." A battle cry almost as ubiquitous as "UP Fight!" Now it looks like yes, this could be the year where they move up from the lower half of the UAAP standings to challenge for a Final Four slot.
Yes, that is how bold they are to make that announcement. No more, "get out of the cellar" or "win more games than the previous season." They want to crowd the big boys. And they are loaded with seasoned veterans and talented newcomers who make for a hungry bunch. And first year coach Rensy Bajar minced no words -- Final Four or bust (more so since they are hosts this season).
They won the Filsports Basketball Association and that in itself is something as they went up against taller and older players. They needed that to toughen up.
Having said that, you cannot take the Maroons lightly. These guys found a style that they were comfortable with -- frenetic-paced and physical basketball. These guys are like the G-State Warriors as they have loads of scorers who can bombard from the outside. Even with Kyles Lao on the mend after an ACL tear, they've got Manuel, Gallarza, Dario, Desiderio, and Moralde. Heck, Mark Juruena and Jarrell Lim can also hit the outside shot.
They have some exciting newcomers in Jan Jaboneta and Pio Longa who add to their Ateneo de Cebu alumni alongside Henry Asilum. Jaboneta is a fearless attacker who can rebound and hit some shots. Longa is a long range threat.
Personally, I think the addition of Jaboneta is huge. He is a physical player blessed with scoring gifts and a nose for the ball. I thought that the Maroons took a cue from his play aside from the return of Desiderio who despite standing 5'10" likes to post up opposing guards.
Jaboneta and Moralde are players who like to drive inside and that adds another dimension to their game.
Speaking of inside players, Cheick Kone who at 6'9" is being tabbed to correct their rim protector woes. And this Burkina Faso (formerly called Upper Volta) national got better as the summer wore on. He'll man the slot with the energetic Gelo Vito and Andrew Harris to play backup.
They made a lot of noise in the pre-season and they backed it up. For sure, come UAAP Season 78, no one can take them lightly.
UST Growling Tigers
Head coach: Bong dela Cruz who is in his second year. He also played for Adamson in the UAAP.
Season 77 record: 5-9
Losses: Regie Basibas, Levi dela Cruz, Alfren Gayosa, Kim Lo, Jan Macasaet, Aljon Mariano, Paolo Pe, and Raymart Sablan.
Holdovers: Karim Abdul, Ed Daquioag, Jeepy Faundo, Kevin Ferrer, Kent Lao, Sheak Sherriff, Henri Subido, and Louie Vigil.
Newcomers: Osama Said Adburasad, Justin Araña, Mario Bonleon, Enrique Caunan, Jan Rey Garrido, Zach Huang, and Kyle Suarez.
They ran into all sorts of problems last season, the departure of studs from the previous years, injuries, poor defense, an even more anaemic offence, and adjusting to a new coach. They only had two wins where they finished with a comfortable lead. A few of their wins were squeakers. Their losses were either by five points or much much more.
This year, they have bettered themselves, although health is still a key issue. Karim Abdul who is on his final year, missed a lot of pre-season games due to injury. Ditto with Renzo Subido. Coach Bong says his crew is healthy and that is a relief for the UST faithful who missed them in action for the most part of the pre-season.
All the more, this is now Kevin Ferrer's team. Last season, he tried to do more by playing leader and doing other things for the team. He even deferred to other teammates as evidence by his willingness to pass the ball. Sometimes that back fired as he needed to take charge on the court by scoring.
Now, Kevin's more comfortable now with that role especially with other players to back him up in the scoring chores. Expect him to go out with a bang in his final UAAP season.
Bong dela Cruz also expects a lot from the rapidly improving Kent Lao to pick up from where Aljon Mariano left off in terms of scoring, leadership, and rebounding. Lao was integral to their fortunes during the summer. "He makes good decisions with the ball," remarked dela Cruz. "I like his game intelligence."
They also have another long range artist in Louie Vigil who began to show why he was a much ballyhooed player coming out of JRU in high school. He just needs to be consistent.
Ed Daquioag is another player who can create and score for his team. His willingness to attack the basket is crucial as it helps free up Karim for some dime drops while finding teammates open on the perimeter. Kyle Suarez, who transferred from UP should also provide the same. It would be interesting to see if he has improved on his jumpshot that was suspect in high school in Ateneo and his one year at UP.
Mario Bonleon adds a lot of scoring and that is an understatement. Sometimes, he forgets that he has teammates and can be unconscious when firing away. But he should add to their punch.
Zach Huang, one of the many Ateneo de Cebu alums now in the UAAP (there are six at the moment), is a smart player who can only get better as he soaks in his UAAP experience. Even at 6'3", Huang can rebound and play defense.
Another new face is Enrique Caunan who could be the second coming of Melo Afuang; a utility player who does the dirty work. From all indications during the summer, Coach Bong will tap him from time to time to play the role of defensive stopper and a rebounder.
Jon Sheriff should what he could do as he was handed the PG slot. He has become a reliable player with a decent mid-range jumper, good defensive instincts with a willingness to find an open teammate.
Any dreams of a return to the Final Four or beyond rest on Karim Abdul's broad shoulders. He is one who can battle NU's Alfred Aroga toe-to-toe. If he can win out on that battle or even neutralise the NU big man, his teammates will have more than a fighting chance to win.