This appears in philstar.com
UAAP Season 79 Preview: Is a title pre-ordained for La Salle?
by rick olivares
A championship isn’t only decided on talent, depth, and coaching. There’s also timing and health.
Throughout UAAP history, we’ve seen talented, deep, and superbly coached squads not win it at all. Most recently, the Adamson Falcons of Alex Nuyles and company as coached by Leo Austria never came within sniffing distance. There are the perennial powerhouse teams of the University of the East from the Boysie Zamar led teams of a few years ago that featured Roi Sumang and others to the team of heartbreakers from the new millennium that featured James Yap, Ronald Tubid, and Paul Artadi.
Those teams had the misfortune of running into the dynastic Ateneo Blue Eagles and the La Salle Green Archers or even the Far Eastern University Tamaraws of those varying eras.
This year, it seems that one team has put it all together… and that’s the La Salle Green Archers.
Theirs is a roster of talented veterans like Jeron Teng, Thomas Torres, and Abu Tratter and promising rookies Aljun Melecio and Ricci Rivero aided and abetted by their powerhouse African reinforcement, Ben Mbala who is this team’s X-factor. Plus, they’ve got a superb head coach in Aldin Ayo who has seemed to put it all together.
Timing? Most schools are de-powered and are in rebuilding mode having lost their veteran core.
Health. They only lost JayBoy Gob to a knee injury but this team is so deep that the sophomore’s loss nary registered a seismic blip.
It goes without saying that DLSU is the hands down favorite to win it all. However, is it a foregone conclusion?
Not really. This is why you play. We’ve seen favorites upset through the years due to teams peaking at the right time, key injuries, and the luck of the bounce. But that remains to be seen.
In the meantime, what makes this team go is Ben Mbala. He showed everyone what is to come when he thoroughly dominated the Filoil Flying V Premier Cup during the summer, smashing the single-season scoring record (that was previously held by FEU’s RR Garcia), racking up numbers in rebounds and block shots aside from double doubles. he was also named Most Valuable Player and Defensive Player.
His presence has benefitted everyone. With him in and around the lane, it has allowed Tratter, previously under-achieving to become a monster tag team partner underneath the boards. With Ben around, La Salle’s shooters have an even greater license to shoot as they know there’s someone to clean up after them.
On the defensive end, Mbala also erases or changes the shots of those who are able to get by the tough cordon around the basket. But the team defense doesn’t begin there. It starts with the patented fullcourt press that Ayo employed with Letran to devastating effect during the past NCAA season where the Knights emerged triumphant. What makes it even more frightening is DLSU has the talent, blue chippers, depth, and athleticism to make this work. And they have.
La Salle made the fullcourt press its signature when the Pumarens were running the show. Under Ayo, this one looks like a four quarters of hell on steroids.
Mbala’s presence has emboldened other players. Watching Jolo Go and Andrei Caracut take those shots with confidence. That’s frightening. During the summer, Torres admitted that the goal was to win every game and every league in sight. And that is definitely possible.
La Salle though is far from a one-man show. Jeron Teng has improved his perimeter game in the last two years. His field goal percentage is pretty high although he doesn’t crash the boards as often as he did with Mbala and Tratter owning the lane.
With the freakish dominance of Mbala and the emergence of Tratter, it is up to Prince Rivero and Jason Perkins to find themselves within the system and flow of the game. Watching them in the pre-season they struggled with the fewer minutes and touches. But that should be fine, right?
The goal after all is a championship. And these lads are on their way to one. The gauntlet has been hurled. Come stop them from rampaging towards the title.