MANILA, Philippines – The Ateneo de Manila University has yet to formally celebrate its triumph in the UAAP Season 80 men's basketball tournament with a traditional bonfire, yet they are already inundated with questions regarding Season 81.
The Blue Eagles ended their five-year title drought last Sunday with a hard-fought victory over archrival De La Salle University in Game 3 of the finals. It was their first title since 2012, when a powerhouse team anchored by Greg Slaughter and Kiefer Ravena completed a historic "five-peat" for the Blue and White.
Since then, however, no UAAP squad has won back-to-back titles. La Salle came close, winning two titles in four seasons. Yet even their remarkably talented squad fell short of a repeat in Season 80, despite having a two-time MVP in Ben Mbala and talented guards in Ricci Rivero and Aljun Melecio.
Still, this does not stop the Ateneo community from hoping – or perhaps, expecting – another championship in Season 81.
Fortunately for them, Ateneo head coach Tab Baldwin is not one to falter in the face of expectations.
"I'm never one to predict," Baldwin said. "(But) I think they should be optimistic. I think they should be hopeful."
"I don't ever shy away from the weight of expectations," he stressed. "It's there from the powers that support the team and the fanbase that we have, and the alumni that we have. So, you know, go crazy."
"Expect everything and want everything. Push us to be the best we can be."
Baldwin has reason to welcome the heightened expectations of their fans. Only three members of his championship team are graduating: Chibueze Ikeh, Vince Tolentino, and Kris Porter. Of the three, only Ikeh and Tolentino played major minutes in Season 80.
This early, it looks as though Ateneo already has the players who can take step into their roles. Forward Troy Mallillin saw limited action in his rookie season, but should be ready to compete for a starting spot next year.
They also have a new foreign student-athlete in Angelo Kouame from the Ivory Coast, who can slide into Ikeh's position.
Adrian Wong, their former starting guard, should be ready to play in Season 81 after missing all of Season 80 due to an ACL injury.
They are also expected to welcome some recruits, said Baldwin, a group that includes former San Beda College player William Navarro.
Of course, the players that are currently in their line-up are all expected to improve.
"These are all developing basketball players, and that is the absolute focus of the coaching staff and our program – to develop these players," said Baldwin.
More than anything, however, Baldwin is confident of their chances for next season because they have figured out a formula that worked for them – and resulted in a championship.
Indeed, he said that the expectations of the Ateneo community will be nothing compared to the expectations that will be set by the team itself.
"Understand that internally, we will be doing that (pushing ourselves) to a degree that they can't even imagine," he said. "Because this is who we profess to be, and we want to live up to our word."
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