MANILA, Philippines -- De La Salle University point guard Evan Nelle pulled no punches about his expectations for the Green Archers in the UAAP Season 85 men's basketball tournament.
"I really think we are the favorites," said Nelle during the league's press conference on Wednesday, as he touted their improve camaraderie and offseason build-up. "The bonding was really different from the bubble season. So yeah, we're No. 1."
Season 84 -- Nelle's first year with La Salle since a high-profile transfer from San Beda University -- ended in painful fashion for the Green Archers as they lost to eventual champions University of the Philippines in the Final 4.
Even now, the manner in which they lost continues to sting for Nelle.
"That's the one that hurts the most, how we lost. We were already up, 14 points in the last four, five minutes, and we still lost," said Nelle. The Green Archers surrendered a 22-4 run to UP in the closing stretch of their do-or-die game, and lost a game that they had mostly controlled.
"Si coach, every time we have bad practices, every time we don't wanna practice, coach says na we were like three minutes, 30 seconds away from getting to the finals. So that really hurts and that motivates us," he added.
In a bid to bounce back from that heartbreaking ending, the Green Archers embarked on a busy offseason. They played in several tournaments, including the PBA D-League Aspirants' Cup and the FilOil EcoOil Preseason Cup, and traveled to Japan for tune-up games.
Their run to the D-League crown as well as their bonding experience in Japan convinced Nelle that their team has what it takes to win the UAAP title this season.
"I really think the offseason was a big help. Siyempre we had more games, more preseason games na we got to have like, a feel for each other na a little bit better than the bubble," he explained.
"When we got to the preseason games, we got to face real competition, our other foes na makikita namin sa UAAP. Even our trip to Japan which bonded us really well, so that's what I think helped us, helped me see our team as way better than last season," he added.
While confident of their chances, Nelle acknowledged that they will be challenged in Season 85. He pointed to UP, the defending champions, as well as Ateneo de Manila University, Far Eastern University, Adamson University, and National University as their toughest opponents in the tournament.
"But we're here to win it all. Sana maka-sweep kami para diretso ng finals, 'di ba?" he added. "We're not here to lose any game."
For La Salle coach Derick Pumaren, Nelle's confident statement is his way of pumping up his teammates for the tough tournament ahead.
"Of course, he has to believe in the team. He has to believe in what we can do. That is his opinion and I respect that," Pumaren said of his point guard.
"I think that's what he is trying to show there, as one of the leaders and the point guard, that we cannot be feeling inferior to other teams," he added. "We just gotta build the confidence, and that's what he's trying to prove."
Nelle and the Green Archers open their campaign on Saturday against the UP Fighting Maroons.
Catch replays of UAAP Season 84 games via the UAAP Varsity channel on iWantTFC, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.