MANILA, Philippines – What should have been a dream season ended in heartbreak for University of the Philippines (UP), after the Fighting Maroons failed to make it to the UAAP Season 82 men's basketball finals.
The Maroons were touted as championship contenders at the start of the tournament, thanks to their roster that was filled with top level talent. They had Season 81 MVP Bright Akhuetie, former Rookie of the Year Juan Gomez de Liano, and a pair of high-profile recruits in Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero.
For all their talent and firepower, the Fighting Maroons never quite put everything together. They faltered against University of Santo Tomas (UST) in the stepladder semifinals, with the Growling Tigers beating them twice to advance to the championship series.
"I think that we had disappointed a lot of our community, the members of our community by not being in the finals," acknowledged UP head coach Bo Perasol.
"But we cannot dwell on that," he added. "We have to move forward on how we can bring this back again to the finals. We're just one game away, but we played against a very tough team."
"Move forward" was Perasol's message at the end of the game, even amidst all the uncertainty that UP is now embroiled in.
It starts with Perasol himself, as the coach is unsure if he will be back to spearhead the Maroons' campaign in Season 83. He has yet to talk with the UP administration about his appointment, but expects a discussion to happen soon.
Perasol has been largely credited with helping the UP men's basketball program rise from the cellar of the UAAP, and indeed, with him in charge the Fighting Maroons have improved their win total every year.
They went 5-9 in Season 79, just fell short of the Final 4 with a 6-8 record in Season 80, and then barged into the finals in Season 81 after finishing with an 8-6 slate. This year, they went 9-5, grabbed a twice-to-beat advantage for the first time in the Final 4 era, but just fell short.
Whether he returns or not, Perasol wants UP to keep competing at a high level, and not tumble down the UAAP rankings once again.
"Ang sabi ko sa kanila also, we have put a (bar), na sana naman huwag na bumaba," he said. "The strength of our program shouldn't be based on personality. Ibig sabihin, hindi dahil andiyan ako, andiyan lagi."
"Ang gusto ko, 'yung program namin na inumpisahan, should be parang Ateneo, La Salle, kahit sinong andiyan, malakas, hindi 'yung bumababa, bigla na lang bababa," he added.
Thus, whoever is in charge of the program – be it Perasol or anyone else – should pick up from where they left off in Season 82.
"Anybody that is going to lead this should be able to start from where we have left," said Perasol.
"The last two years, we've been in the Final 4," he added. "We should be in the Final 4 next year."
Whether the Fighting Maroons can live up to the standard that has been set remains to be seen. After all, it is not just Perasol who is uncertain of his return. The Gomez de Liano brothers, Juan and Javi, have also hinted at moving on from UP. Point guard Jun Manzo also played his last game on Wednesday.
As early as now, fans are already clamoring for Paras and Rivero to stay for one more season with the team.
For Perasol, this is exactly the kind of test that the UP program needs to experience, to see if they are at the same level as other established basketball powerhouses.
"The success of any program is going to be proven by whoever takes over," he explained. "I think that it is just important, that we have to test that. We have to test the strength of our program."
"It's not because I'm here, or my management is here, but because the program is already there. Whoever takes over is going to be blessed with a program that can compete with anybody," Perasol added.
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