MANILA - The 90th NCAA basketball tournament unfolds on Saturday with reigning titlist San Beda taking on host Jose Rizal, and last year's second placer Letran battling San Sebastian at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.
The Lions are looking to win their first game against the Bombers in their 1 p.m. duel and set in motion their bid to become the second seniors team to win a fifth straight championship after the San Sebastian Stags accomplished the feat in the 1993-97 seasons.
Another championship will also extend San Beda's reign as a dynasty as it will give it not only a fifth title in row but also eighth in the last nine seasons.
San Beda coach Boyet Fernandez knows the pressure is immense.
"If you're a team that won four straight championships and seven of the last eight, all teams will really want to beat you so we expect this season the be toughest of all," said Fernandez, whose charges are coming off a second-place finish behind La Salle in the Filoil Flying V event last summer.
"In fairness also, all the teams have improved making it tougher for us," he added.
The Lions' campaign will hinge on Nigerian giant Ola Adeogun, who this early has been touted to win the MVP award with his size and heft. With a supporting cast of Baser Amer, Arthur dela Cruz and Anthony Semera, San Beda is expected to come out with a break-out season.
Adeogun though was quick to downplay their chances.
"As always, its going to be hard, if not harder. The pressure to win again is big. We just have to play harder," said the 6-7 Adeogun.
The Lions though will have their hands full against the Bombers, who pulled off a surprising quarterfinal finish in the Filoil Flying V tilt, including a sensational upset win over La Salle along the way.
Michael Mabulac, Philip Paniamogan and Jaycee Asuncion, a rookie transferee from Perpetual Help, and Ghanan reinforcement Abdul Razal Abdul Wahab will be the bright spots for Jose Rizal.
Count their defense too.
"Since I took over, I always say our defense is our offense. Nothing is different this year," said Jose Rizal mentor Vergel Meneses.
The Knights and the Stags collide at 3 p.m. in a re-match of last year's Final Four duel with the former creaming the latter, 85-58, to advance to the finals where they forced the Lions to a third game before eventually losing.
Letran will be without Raymond Almazan and Jonathan Belorio though, making it an underdog against the San Sebastian, which got two talented rookies from its high school team--Michael Calisaan and Rhanzelle Yong--in place for do-it-all Fil-Am Leo De Vera, who played his first and only season last year.
Preceding the pair of games is an opening number Management Committee chair and Jose Rizal athletic director Paul Supan described as something to remember.