MANILA - Ange Kouame will not be at his best when the Ateneo de Manila University opens its campaign in UAAP Season 85, but the reigning Most Valuable Player is still expected to lead the way for the Blue Eagles.
Kouame was dominant in UAAP Season 84, averaging 12.86 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 2.07 blocks per game in the elimination round to lead Ateneo back to the Finals.
However, he was shut down due to a knee injury following the Blue Eagles' loss to the University of the Philippines in the Finals, and missed out on a handful of FIBA events for Gilas Pilipinas. It was only recently that the naturalized center returned to action for Ateneo.
"He's somewhere south of MVP-form. How far? He needs binoculars to see it, that's for sure," Ateneo coach Tab Baldwin said to Nikko Ramos on the Call to Arms podcast, when asked of Kouame's status.
"He isn't that close," the coach added. "Getting back the coordination, the agility, the mobility which is such a big part, the quickness which is such a big part of Ange's game hasn't come all the way back yet."
"The desire is there, the heart is there, and those are important factors for him. But yeah, he isn't the player that he was at the end of last season."
The Sahamang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) said in June that Kouame had sustained a meniscal sprain and a partial ACL tear, which kept him out of action in the FIBA Asia Cup as well as the third and fourth windows of the FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
Kouame did not play in Ateneo's campaign in the World University Basketball Series in Japan as well.
According to Baldwin, Kouame's knee was "a mess" at the end of the season, but they caught a break when top orthopedic surgeon Dr. Raul Canlas decided that rehabilitation was enough for the center.
"If he had had surgery, we would have lost him for the season," said Baldwin of Kouame.
Kouame spent the months after UAAP Season 84 recovering from the injury, and so far he has yet to reach a consistent standard of play during the Blue Eagles' tune-up games. Baldwin told Ramos that their center was "a shadow of himself" in a recent game against Adamson University, but looked much better the very next day in another tune-up against the visiting Changwon LG Sakers from the Korean Basketball League (KBL).
"I'm not sure what the exact triggers are for him right now, to get him hitting on all cylinders," said Baldwin.
"But he's certainly gonna start for us, he's certainly gonna play in the season as long as his knees hold up. And we're excited about him having his last season with us, and making that a great way to go out," the coach added.
Ateneo opens their UAAP Season 85 campaign on October 2 against Far Eastern University at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Catch replays of UAAP Season 84 games via the UAAP Varsity channel on iWantTFC, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.