Rookie-laden Stags will face Knights on Saturday
MANILA, Philippines -- Letran and San Sebastian will go into the 90th NCAA basketball tournament hard-pressed to match if not surpass their second- and third-place finish last year despite losing some key players entering the season.
The Knights are still smarting from the departure of big men Raymond Almazan and Jonathan Belorio, while the Stags will have to make do without Leo de Vera, Raffy Gusi, Mark Trinidad, Ranimark Tano and Giuseppe Vergara -- or practically half of the team.
Without Almazan, who is now with Rain or Shine in the PBA, and Belorio, Letran will be left with a gaping hole inside. That is why Letran coach Caloy Garcia is encouraging his other bigs -- Jamil Gabawan, Reneford Ruaya and Reynaldo Publico, Jr. -- to respond to the challenge.
"It will be tough to fill in the inside void but we're hoping last year's finals experience have strengthened my other big men," said Garcia, who debuted last season by steering the Muralla-based dribblers to a second-place finish behind eventual champions San Beda.
For San Sebastian mentor Topex Robinson, he will need his veterans Jovit dela Cruz, Jamil Ortuoste, Bradwyn Guinto, Jaymar Perez and Bobby Baculanag to step up and serve as good examples to the younger players.
After all, half of Robinson's team this year are rookies -- Earvin Alvarez, Michael Calisaan, Ryan Costelo, Jerick Fabian, Justin Mercado, Spencer Petta, Jeffrey Santos and Rhanzelle Yong.
"I lost some key players last year so I will need my veteran players to be shining examples to my younger guys," said Robinson.
Robinson also said his team is used to this kind of situation as they also came in as a rookie-laden team after losing their "Pinatubo Three" of Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang and Ronald Pascual. But they went on to defy expectations by gatecrashing into the Final Four and finishing third.
"We've been in this kind of situation last year and we did okay. We just need to play as a team and have faith on the system for us to be okay again this season," he said.
Both Garcia and Robinson agreed that their 3 p.m. game on Saturday's opener at the MOA Arena in Pasay City should help gauge on how they will fare this year, while serving as a re-match last year's Final Four showdown which the Knights handily won, 85-58, to advance to the finals.
Season 90 will be ushered in with San Beda, winner of four straight championships and seven of the last eight, and host Jose Rizal clashing at 1 p.m.
"It will more or less show on the direction we're going this year," said Garcia.
"It's a good gauge on how we'll do because we all know Letran stronger teams in the NCAA," said Robinson.