On paper, the Ateneo Blue Eagles looked like the favorites to repeat as UAAP men's basketball champions.
Then three of their players suited up for Gilas Pilipinas at the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers, and that prospect has started to appear more possible.
A youthful Philippines side downed South Korea 81-78 on Wednesday to notch its first win in the Clark leg of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers and remain unbeaten in 4 games.
Dwight Ramos scored a team-high 16 points, including making 9 of 10 free throws; SJ Belangel added 13 points; and Ange Kouame chipped in 12 points and 6 rebounds.
Ramos, Belangel and Kouame will be the centerpieces — a budding Big 3 — of the 3-time defending champions
And with the trio playing pivotal roles on the continental stage against Korea, some social-media reactions veered away from Gilas talk and instead looked ahead to the coming UAAP season.
Might as well crown the Blue Eagles kings of college basketball, some say.
Ramos, 22, has emerged as Gilas' best player, even back in his Gilas debut at the Bahrain stop of the qualifiers late last year.
National coach Jong Uichico described him as ready for the pros.
Kouame, 23, who has anchored the Blue Eagles' interior in their title runs, appears to have worked long-distance shooting into his game, making him an even more potent weapon.
Belangel, 21, meanwhile, picked up where he left off in the last UAAP season, displaying grit and continuing to be a reliable shot-maker under duress.
But the glue that holds those players together — and essentially the machine that powers the Ateneo basketball program — is coach Tab Baldwin, whose system remains unbeatable in the UAAP and has proven capable of breaking even Asia's elite teams.
Just after the Blue Eagles copped the Season 82 title and even before Ramos joined the team, Baldwin had said he liked Ateneo's chances of summiting the league again.
"We will have a great team next year," Baldwin said.
"Of course, that will be dependent on those guys, but I really believe in this group, and I think our upside is phenomenal. So we will have to realize those aspirations, and from me, expectations."
Around the same time, Thirdy Ravena said the Katipunan program's success doesn't hinge on individual players.
"It's the culture, it's about how we play, and we play for one another. As long as it's there, it doesn't matter," said Ravena, who left Ateneo as the first 3-time UAAP finals MVP.
"We've been preaching the next man up for the last four years, and I know whoever steps in our spot, alam namin gagawin nila 'yung pinaka makakaya nila para sa mga teammates nila. I'm very optimistic about it."
FROM THE ARCHIVES