MANILA, Philippines -- Jack Santiago has no doubt that the University of the East exceeded all expectations in UAAP Season 85, where his Red Warriors won five games and pushed for a Final 4 spot until the end of the elimination round.
The Red Warriors were winless in Season 84 but emerged as an unlikely contender in Season 85, behind a star-making campaign from Filipino-American forward Luis Villegas and the shot-making of guard Kyle Paranada.
Big man Gani Stevens improved as the season went on and became a contender for Rookie of the Year, while freshman guard Rey Remogat had explosive performances in their final two games.
"Nobody expected us to be here," Santiago said after their final game of Season 85 -- an 80-72 upset of De La Salle University in overtime that gave them a 5-9 win-loss record.
"Even the other teams are praising [us], telling us na na-overachieve kami," he pointed out. "But of course, ang bottomline dito is hindi pa rin kami nakapasok sa Final 4."
UE's Final 4 drought is the longest in the UAAP: they have not made the postseason since 2009, when the likes of Paul Lee, Elmer Espiritu, and Val Acuña were still suiting up for the Red Warriors. They came close in 2014, when Roi Sumang powered the Red Warriors to a knockout game for the fourth seed. Unfortunately for UE, they fell to National University in a playoff, 51-49.
Santiago is optimistic that he has the building blocks of the team that can finally end that record of futility.
"I want my boys to remember that [we didn't make the Final 4]," he said. "Especially si Remogat, who's playing his first year palang ngayon and Gani also. I want these experiences na maremember nila."
"Of course, marami kaming pagkukulang, marami kaming mga mistakes, down the stretch, being the coach, I would say meron din akong mga lapses," he added.
"Siguro, it's a learning process pa rin sa atin -- to be a better team next year and to be more experienced players, experienced team for next year."
Santiago will lose three players from this season's team -- Villegas, Nikko Paranada, and CJ Payawal. All three were vital to their campaign; Villegas, in particular, is a contender for Mythical Team honors after averaging 13.1 points, 8.07 rebounds, 3.79 assists, and 1.93 steals per game in his lone season in the UAAP.
The coach says they are already working at finding replacements for these players.
"We have some recruits naman," said Santiago. "We have some guys na kinakausap din from the States, so hopefully maayos ko na 'yun."
"I still have a [foreign student-athlete] din na naka-enroll, so hopefully, maayos din natin lahat."
UAAP Season 85 is streaming on iWantTFC every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, available for Premium users outside the Philippines.