MANILA, Philippines – There is a very real possibility that University of Santo Tomas will finish the UAAP Season 80 men's basketball tournament without a single victory in 14 games.
Some Growling Tigers have already expressed their frustrations about this. Marvin Lee, their team captain, says that if they do wind up with a 0-14 win-loss record, it will be the first time in his career that he ends a season without a win.
Remarkably, the one person who is not sweating a potential winless season is UST's own coach, Boy Sablan. Even after a 102-83 defeat to Ateneo on Saturday that pushed the Tigers to 0-13, Sablan remains as defiant as ever.
"Hindi lang ako ang nag-zero dito sa UAAP," Sablan, who is in his second season as UST's head coach, said. "'Yung ibang teams diyan, marami. Zero. Tingnan niyo ang history."
"So hindi ako ang unang zero dito. Siguro 'yung coach, baka sakali. Pero 'yung history ng ibang teams, maraming zero diyan," he stressed.
Technically, Sablan is correct: other UAAP teams have gone through winless seasons as well. As recently as Season 76, the UP Fighting Maroons went through a brutal 0-14 campaign before their rebuilding efforts began to pay off.
Yet there is also no doubt that the past couple of years have represented a shocking low for UST, at least in terms of results. In Sablan's first season in charge, they won only three games; the Growling Tigers have actually lost 17 straight games dating back to Season 79. That this losing streak comes after a stretch wherein they made the UAAP Finals three times in four seasons makes it all the more painful.
This run of futility is surely infuriating not only for the UST players, but for their students and alumni who have always taken pride in their historic basketball program.
For Sablan, however, this – a string of disheartening losses that includes a 35-point beat down from De La Salle University – is simply a part of UST's rebuilding process.
"Yung rebuilding process kasi, sabi nga yung isang kataas-taasang pari sa amin, rebuilding process takes three years at least," Sablan explained.
"So nung nag assume ako last year nung June, tapon eh, kasi wala akong time eh. This year, nag peprepare ako ng January kaya ang dami naming ligang sinalihan eh. Yung maturity, exposure and experience nakita naman natin," he added.
Sablan is confident that in Season 81 – Year 3 of the Sablan Era – the Growling Tigers should be far more competitive.
"Next year, iba na ito kasi alam na nila eh," he said.
The coach then went to his tried-and-tested line in Season 80 – that his team is composed of eight veterans and eight rookies, and that many of his players are seeing major minutes for the first time in their careers.
"Siguro, pagkukulang namin masyado kami naging relax pero yung maturity experience and exposure kulang pa, rebuilding process pa. Eh saan naman kami nanggaling, katakot takot na kontrobersya," he pointed out. "2013, 2014, 2015, minana ko ng 2016-2017 ngayon, saan naman ako ngayon lulugar. Kawawa naman ako. Yung mga di makaintindi eh talagang bubugbugin ako."
At this point, Sablan is simply taking joy in the little victories that they get, such as the development of the UST players.
"Ini-interpret ko sa akin, sa sarili ko, panalo ako sa mga players na ito, kasi wala naman itong mga 'to a few years back," said Sablan. "'Yung development nila, maganda. Siguro, 'yun ang nagawa ko, panalo ako para sa kanila. Naibigay ko sa kanila."
Of course, the Growling Tigers can still avoid the stain of a winless campaign. They face off against University of the East on November 12, in their last chance of salvaging a victory this year. The Red Warriors won their first round game, 96-91.
"Ah siyempre, we want to win that final game," said Sablan. "We will prepare for it."
"Gawin lang namin 'yung dapat naming gawin, just like 'yung preparation na ginagawa namin sa ibang kalaban," he added.
This preparation has not resulted in a single triumph in their first 13 games of the season. It remains to be seen if it will be enough for a desperate UST team in their final assignment of the tournament.
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