New coaches lead top PBA squads to Finals clash

By Jason Inocencio

Posted at Jan 05 2015 04:01 PM | Updated as of Jan 06 2015 12:01 AM

Composite photo of San Miguel Beer's Leo Austria and Alaska's Alex Compton. Photo by Mark Cristino, ABS-CBNnews.com

For the first time in over a year, the PBA is set to crown a new champion. With the elimination of the Grand Slam-winning Purefoods Star/San Mig Coffee franchise before the 2014-2015 Philippine Cup semifinals even began, the opportunity for a new winner arose.

At the end of the semis, however, two old and proud franchises remained to dispute the crown.

Long road back

It’s been a while for San Miguel Beer, the lone founding member since the PBA’s birth in 1975 that still competes, to return to this position. Ato Agustin was the head coach when the then-named Petron Blaze Boosters raised the franchise’s 19th championship banner during the 2011 PBA Governors’ Cup over Talk ‘N Text. The unheralded Anthony Grundy served as import and Arwind Santos was crowned Finals MVP.

Since then, the team has seen several upheavals, particularly in the coaching staff as Olsen Racela (with Rajko Toroman), Gee Abanilla, Biboy Ravanes and “active consultant” Todd Purves have served as head coach. Although Petron did make the Finals of the 2013 Governors’ Cup, they eventually lost to San Mig Coffee in the first of that team’s four straight titles. All those failures and what if’s, as well as the rumored discord between Santos, Alex Cabagnot and Jay Washington, led to the term “Petronovela” being used to describe the team.

In the time that has passed since that last San Miguel/Petron title, only Santos remains from that roster. Cabagnot was traded to Globalport for Sol Mercado in 2013, but the two were surprisingly swapped back for each other right before the current Philippine Cup playoffs began. June Mar Fajardo was drafted first overall in 2013, and followed Santos’ own MVP season by claiming the award last year. Yet despite those individual successes, the team that has won the most titles in league history still struggled to get back to the Finals.

During the break between seasons, team management turned to former Petron assistant coach Leo Austria to take charge. Austria had success leading the San Miguel franchise to a championship in the 2013 Asian Basketball League, and steered the Adamson Falcons to their most successful run in the UAAP since the early '90s. With a focus on defense, Fajardo’s post play, and unselfishness, Austria pushed the Beermen to the best record in the eliminations, then surprisingly swept the Tropang Texters with ease during the semifinals.

Aces fall, stand back up

In the case of Alaska, the nucleus of this squad is largely unchanged since winning its 14th title in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup. Then mentored by Luigi Trillo, the Aces swept away Barangay Ginebra San Miguel via dominant performances by Finals MVP Sonny Thoss and Best Import Robert Dozier.

What was supposed to follow was more championships, at least that was what Alaska owner Wilfred Uytengsu promised at the victory party. Instead, the team seemed to regress or was stuck in some kind of malaise as they struggled to return to their championship form.

The mercurial Calvin Abueva nearly won the MVP in his rookie year of 2013, but his flopping, aggressiveness and hustle oftentimes undermined his unquestionable basketball skills since that title run. The veteran-laden roster composed of JVee Casio, Thoss, RJ Jazul, Cyrus Baguio, Dondon Hontiveros, Tony dela Cruz and Gabby Espinas kept underperforming, eventually leading to Trillo’s ouster despite his delivery of a title. Promoting from within, assistant coach Alex Compton was given the task to lead the Aces back to respectability.

In less than a season as head coach, Compton has already delivered a Finals appearance. Adding rookie Chris Banchero and 40-year-old former league MVP Eric Menk while moving away from the vaunted Triangle Offense and reigning in Abueva’s wild tendencies had Alaska back in contention.

Matched up with perpetual contenders Rain or Shine in their semifinals bracket, Alaska endured a highly physical six games before emerging victorious. The clinching game even saw Hontiveros turn back the clock to deliver five huge triples in the fourth quarter to book Alaska’s spot in the Finals.

First to 20 or second to 15?

What we now have is a match-up between the franchises that have won the most titles in PBA history. The irony though is that the coaches leading each team are almost newbies with their respective squads.

It’s interesting to note as well that Compton served as assistant to Austria when the latter was head coach of the then-Welcoat Dragons from 2006-2008. Compton himself has made it known how much he respects Austria as a coaching mentor.

On paper, it’s long been said that San Miguel Beer should be dominating the league thanks to its powerhouse roster. Two MVPs in Fajardo and Santos, a proven clutch scorer in Cabagnot, sensational athletes in Chris Lutz and Marcio Lassiter, veteran bangers in Doug Kramer, Rico Maierhofer and Ronald Tubid, and energetic back-ups like Chris Ross, Jeric Fortuna, and rookies Ronald Pascual and David Semerad. Austria’s crew seems to have finally put the days of the “Petronovela” behind them.

On the Alaska side, the previously mentioned championship-winning core now also includes tireless workers Vic Manuel, Ping Exciminiano, and rookie Rome dela Rosa as part of Compton’s rotation. Though Thoss, Abueva, Baguio and Casio are still expected to carry the burden of the offense, Hontiveros showed in the Rain or Shine series that there’s still some fuel left in the gunner’s tank.

With the Philippine Cup (or All Filipino Conference as it was once known) always viewed as the most prestigious of the PBA’s three tournaments, expect a knockdown, drag-out affair when San Miguel and Alaska begin their series on Wednesday.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.