UAAP preview: Coaches assess Season 80 chances

Camille B. Naredo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 07 2017 06:48 AM

MANILA, Philippines – The new UAAP season is just around the corner, and as always, teams are approaching the men's basketball tournament with just the right mixture of hope, trepidation, and bravado.

Defending champions De La Salle University is still considered the favorite to rule in Season 80, but nipping at the Green Archers' heels are a bunch of teams who are all determined to seize the crown.

Chief among them is La Salle's archrival, Ateneo de Manila University, which is upbeat that its veteran core and celebrated coach can get the job done in Season 80, after falling just short in Season 79.

Host school Far Eastern University (FEU), for its part, started hostilities against La Salle early, as the two squads were involved in an infamous brawl in Davao last month that both teams hastily and emphatically downplayed in a preseason press conference.

Of course, up-and-coming squads like National University (NU), Adamson University, and University of the Philippines (UP) have all beefed up their rosters, with an eye towards making the leap towards the upper echelon of the UAAP.

Even teams that disappointed in Season 79 – University of the East (UE) and University of Santo Tomas (UST), in particular – are expected to put up a tougher fight this time around.

As UP coach Bo Perasol put it: "Wala akong nakikitang team na bibilangin mo na panalo."

In their own words, the UAAP coaches discuss their preparation, chances, and goals for the upcoming tournament.

UST GROWLING TIGERS

Season 79 record – 3-11 (8th)

The Growling Tigers will look very different in Season 80, with three of their key players from last year – Louie Vigil, Renzo Subido, Embons Bonleon and Jon Sheriff – all having left the team.

Coach Boy Sablan, entering his second season as UST's chief tactician, revealed that they will have a whopping "eight new faces," including foreign student-athlete Steve Akomo – should he be made eligible by the UAAP Board of Trustees.

Season 79 was a difficult one for UST, and their offseason provided tremendous drama as well. But they enter Season 80 with renewed optimism, and hope that they can recapture the glory days of the Tigers.

"We have prepared longer for this year," said Sablan. "All teams are competitive, and they have equal chances. But for our team in UST, we will do our best and play our best each game."

UE RED WARRIORS

Season 79 record – 3-11 (7th)

Much like UST, UE will also look profoundly different in Season 80. Gone are former go-to guys like Bonbon Batiller, Paul Varilla, and Renz Palma, as well as versatile big man RR de Leon.

Instead, UE coach Derrick Pumaren has handed the keys to the kingdom to fearless forward Alvin Pasaol, whose innate ability to simply get buckets will be vital for a Red Warriors squad that is eyeing to finally live up to its potential in Season 80.

Since Pumaren took over as head coach, UE has been lauded as a potential Final 4 contender, but they have so far not lived up to the billing. Only time will tell if Season 80 will be the breakout year for the Red Warriors.

"We just hope we can just better our showing this coming season, and hopefully, we'll be able to erase 'yung disappointing year namin last season," said Pumaren. "We just have to compete and play with confidence this time."

"I'd be lying if (I say) we're not looking for the Final 4," he added. "But the realistic goal is we just have to better our performance last season. We just have to treat each game like our last game. That's the goal."

UP FIGHTING MAROONS

Season 79 record – 5-9 (6th)

The UP Fighting Maroons were one of the best stories of the UAAP Season 79 campaign, after UP shed its status as a perennial cellar-dweller and instead made a run at the Final 4.

Behind a breakout year from Mythical 5 member Paul Desiderio and inspired by graduating senior Jett Manuel, the Fighting Maroons racked up wins against Ateneo, Adamson, and NU in the second round, but their chances of forcing a Final 4 playoff were dashed with a loss to UE in their final game.

Still, their performance in Season 79 proved that there is truly nowhere to go but up for the Fighting Maroons. They are full of hope heading into Season 80, with their core one year older and one year better, and with new faces like Ibrahim Quattara (eligibility pending) and Juan Gomez de Liaño looking to give UP an even bigger boost.

"I really see that this is going to be an exciting season for all of us," said UP coach Bo Perasol, who nevertheless admitted that the team is still hoping to work out the eligibility issues of two of their starters – Quattara and Rob Ricaforte.

"Dalawang players ko ang hindi eligible to play, so napakalaking dagok sa aking koponan ito…Sana mabigyan pa kami ng panahon para makapag-adjust ng kaunti. (But) I'm excited for this coming season," he added.

NU BULLDOGS

Season 79 record – 5-9 (5th)

There is no doubt that NU was the most disappointing team in the UAAP in Season 79. Projected to be a title-contender in the offseason, the Bulldogs instead fell apart. A brutal six-game losing streak in the second round ended their hopes of qualifying for the Final 4.

Changes came immediately to NU. Eric Altamirano – the coach who led the Bulldogs to the Season 77 crown – resigned, and soon after, Jamike Jarin took over his post. Jarin's entrance marked the end of the deliberate, slow-paced NU style of basketball: the Bulldogs will instead be running and gunning and unleashing 40 minutes of hell.

"As long as we (do) 90 feet of defending and selfless basketball, we'll be good," said Jarin. "The personal goal for us is to make it to the Final 4. It's to do better than what NU did last year. If we make it to the Final 4, then we'll be good."

Adamson SOARING FALCONS

Season 79 record – 8-6 (4th)

If NU disappointed, then Adamson exceeded expectations in Season 79. With new coach Franz Pumaren and a bunch of promising recruits leading the way, the Soaring Falcons burst into the Final 4, where they gave eventual champion La Salle a tough fight before eventually fading down the stretch.

In Season 80, however, much more is expected of the Soaring Falcons. They bid goodbye to versatile wing JD Tungcab, but then turned around and added the hyper-athletic Tyrus Hill. Also making his debut for Adamson is well-traveled point guard Jerie Pingoy, who has gone from FEU to Ateneo, before making his way to the Falcons.

Even as the pressure continues to mount, the ever savvy Pumaren is looking to downplay his team's chances.

"If you look at our team, we're still a very young team," he said, pointing out that only four of his players are UAAP veterans with over three years of experience in collegiate basketball.

"The rest of the team are sophomores and freshmen," he added. "We're excited, but of course, we have to wait and see because we all know that the other teams have been beefing up their line-up."

"Hopefully, we can perform better than we did last season," Pumaren said of their goal for Season 80.

FEU TAMARAWS

Season 79 record – 9-5 (3rd)

The FEU Tamaraws lost several players from its Season 78 championship team, but that did not stop them from defending their title as best as they could. New heroes stepped up for the Tams – namely Raymar Jose and Monbert Arong – as they embarked on their title-retention bid.

Unfortunately, their title defense ended in the Final 4, where they were literally half a second away from returning to the Finals for a third consecutive year. Ron Dennison's shot was just a shade too late, and FEU was dethroned by Ateneo in the semis.

Like NU, the Tamaraws are coming off a summer of change. Coach Nash Racela, the mentor who led them to the Season 78 crown, is now with TNT in the PBA, and calling the shots is his brother Olsen Racela. Their roster has been revamped as well. Arvin Tolentino and Hubert Cani are now eligible after a year of residency, and so are guards Jasper Parker and RJ Ramirez.

"Just like any FEU team in the past, we'll be very competitive this year," Racela predicted. "Even though we're much smaller this year, we'll make up for it through quickness dahil marami kaming guards ngayon."

"The realistic goal lang for me is to make the Final 4, and see what happens from there," added Racela, who also intends to keep running the dribble drive system that his brother Nash installed in FEU.

ATENEO BLUE EAGLES

Season 79 record – 10-4 (2nd)

The Ateneo Blue Eagles caught plenty of teams off-guard in Season 79. After a slow start that included a last-second loss to Adamson and a shock upset to UP, the Blue Eagles won their last six games to nab the second seed and a twice-to-beat edge in the Final 4.

Included in that magical six-game run was a stunning upset of La Salle , making Ateneo the lone team to beat the Green Archers in Season 79.

They sneaked into the Finals for the first time since Season 75 by escaping FEU in the Final 4, but the Blue Eagles ran out of steam in the championship round against their archrivals. With a mostly intact roster – and after one year of mastering the system of Tab Baldwin – Ateneo enters Season 80 brimming with confidence.

"This will be harder, because I don't think teams will be taking us lightly. All teams that we play, it's going to be a tough game for us, and we have to make sure that we bring our A-game," said Ateneo assistant coach Sandy Arespacochaga.

DE LA SALLE GREEN ARCHERS

Season 79 record – 13-1 (1st)

There is only one word to describe La Salle's run in Season 79 – dominant.

Behind one of the most talented rosters that the UAAP has seen in years, led by a passionate coach with a tried-and-tested system, and anchored by a veteran forward who was determined to end his collegiate career on a high, the Green Archers roared through the tournament.

Their lone hiccup – a loss to Ateneo in the second round that denied them a sweep – was avenged in the Finals, where they proceeded to sweep the Blue Eagles for their first title since Season 76.

But things will be different for La Salle in Season 80. Yes, Aldin Ayo and his "Mayhem" system is still there, as is uber-athletic center Ben Mbala, whose imposing presence powered La Salle all throughout 2016. Gone, however, is Jeron Teng, whose veteran smarts and coolness in the clutch helped the Green Archers pull out wins during the Final 4 and the Finals.

La Salle will now rely even more on Mbala, while players like Kib Montalbo, Prince Rivero, Ricci Rivero, and Aljun Melecio will have far bigger roles.

"It has always been there – 'yung mayhem," said Ayo. "It's not only on defense, but offense also. But our system is evolving. We're doing new things."

"Of course, you have to present new things sa table kasi naga-adjust naman 'yung mga teams sa amin eh. You can't rely on things you did last season. Nage-evolve 'yung sistema namin, and madami kaming ginagawa na bago, na hopefully, maging effective," he added.

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