MANILA, Philippines -- Ateneo de Manila University head coach Tab Baldwin believes that the Blue Eagles will be in unfamiliar territory in the UAAP Season 85 men's basketball tournament.
After being considered as the gold standard of men's basketball for the past four seasons, the Blue Eagles will not be the odds-on favorites to win the UAAP championship this year. For Baldwin, that distinction goes to defending champion University of the Philippines as well as De La Salle University, whom he considers a tier above the Blue Eagles ahead of the new season.
"They can say he's playing mind games, they can do whatever they want," Baldwin told Nikko Ramos on the "Call to Arms" podcast. "But we are clearly the underdogs compared to those two teams."
For the first time since 2017, Ateneo won't enter the UAAP season as reigning champions. They ceded their crown -- and their aura of invincibility -- to the Fighting Maroons in May, losing in a classic three-game series that was decided by a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Joel Cagulangan.
What followed was an eventful offseason that saw Ateneo lose a handful of seniors to graduation with Gian Mamuyac, Tyler Tio, Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza now plying their trade in the pro ranks. But the departure of SJ Belangel for the Korean Basketball League (KBL) was unexpected, and put Baldwin in a bind.
The recruitment of Filipino-American point guard Paul Garcia eased the sting a little, and Ateneo will still have the league's top player in reigning Most Valuable Player Ange Kouame along with veterans like BJ Andrade and Dave Ildefonso.
But Baldwin is wary that the short turnaround between Season 84 and 85 isn't enough to fully integrate their new additions into the team. Aside from Garcia, Ateneo is also welcoming high-flying forward Kai Ballungay to their roster.
"I've always been a big preparation guy, and with the short turnaround, this team which has so many new players in it, it needs more preparation time," he explained.
"I think our play in the preseason right now reflects that. We don't look very good, in my eyes, and we need more preparation. We need more preparation games, and we're not gonna get them. So it's time to buckle up and really prepare for the fight," he added.
"We have to make it not one big fight, but 14 big fights in order to get to the one big fight. I think that's the way we have to look at it."
Baldwin believes that his team can be a dangerous one, and he expects them to improve as the season progresses. But he also insists that La Salle and UP are -- at least on paper -- ahead of them at the moment.
"On paper, they're monsters," Baldwin said of the Green Archers and the Fighting Maroons. "La Salle is gonna be in your face, from the time you walk out of the locker room, they're gonna be pressuring, pressuring, pressuring."
"They have a frightening frontline, to be perfectly honest. The best I've seen in the UAAP in my time here," he said of La Salle.
UP, meanwhile, is returning an almost intact line-up from Season 84. Baldwin highlighted their frontline as well, anchored by Carl Tamayo and Malick Diouf, and said their backcourt of Cagulangan and Gerry Abadiano are "just nightmares for your guards."
"The bald-headed guy sitting at the end of the bench, he's a problem too. He's a real problem, and such a quiet, unassuming guy," said Baldwin, referring to UP head coach Goldwin Monteverde. "Goldwin is the gold standard for coaching."
"What are you gonna do with those two teams? You're gonna be in for the fight of your life."
Given their roster and the UAAP landscape, Baldwin said the expectations within their team has changed. He admits that in Seasons 82 and 84, "we felt we should win every game."
"I don't feel like that's a realistic expectation now," said Baldwin. "This team has to grow and mature, and become a winner."
"Right now, today, looking ahead, I don't see this team as a team that runs the table," he added. "Nonetheless, I do expect our team to be a dangerous team. I do expect them to approach every game with a ferocity and with a confidence that, [if] we play the way that we are capable of playing, we can and we should win."
"But those are just words. The reality is gonna be played out in a very, very exciting Season 85, UAAP season. I'm privileged again, and excited again to be a part of it."
Ateneo opens its UAAP Season 85 campaign on October 2, Sunday, against Far Eastern University.
Catch replays of UAAP Season 84 games via the UAAP Varsity channel on iWantTFC, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.