As expected, the 76th Season of the UAAP started with a blast after some interesting opening day games were held during the weekend. Many believe that this year could be one of the more balanced seasons in the 76-year old league. I could not agree more.
Like what most experts think, I too believe that at least six teams have a China man’s chance of bagging this year’s plum in men’s basketball. The teams are so evenly matched that its tough to predict which of them will emerge as the top four contenders.
However, I expected NU, UST and Adamson to win their opening day assignments, which they did.
The Bulldogs, in my opinion, are the most formidable team man for man. Aside from having arguably the best player in college basketball today – Bobby Ray Parks Jr. – I think they have the most quality players in all positions. And they have a deep bench too. Of course, it helped a lot that Ateneo star Kiefer Ravena was virtually absent in the game due to a sprained ankle. He saw action for just eight minutes and contributed two points, a far cry from his 21.8 points per game in the Fil Oil Cup. He also shot a miserable 0 of 5 from the arc, and had two turnovers. So this game became a walk in the park for the Bulldogs.
The Blue Eagles looked helpless in their offense without Ravena. They scored just 32 points in three quarters. Although NU did an excellent defensive job, Ateneo did not look like the five-time defending champion we knew in its offense against the Bulldogs. The Eagles fell by as much as 24 points, 35-59, with still 5:31 left in playtime. Then Nico Elorde sparked a 16-2 Ateneo run, scoring eight markers to come to within ten points, 51-61, with two minutes remaining. But Parks was not about to let the impending victory slip away as he drained a booming trey that doused cold water on ADMU’s rally. The final count was 64-54.
This game showed a major chink in the Eagles’ armor. Stop Ravena, stop Ateneo. In the pre-season tournament, Ravena accounted for almost 30% of Ateneo’s score. For the Eagles to have a crack at a sixth straight UAAP title, more of them must have their fingers in the scoring pie. Ryan Buenafe must take charge in the absence of Kiefer. Against NU, he had just 10 markers in 33 minutes, and shot a horrendous 1 out of 8 from beyond the arc. Although he had a pretty solid all-around game, with six rebounds, five steals, four assists and one block, Ateneo needs his scoring the most.
The Bulldogs will be even tougher to beat when new recruit Alfred Aroga of Cameroon sees action in the UAAP. NU decided to sit him out until he completes his immigration papers, which must be submitted to the UAAP within the first round of elimination. Aroga averaged an impressive 13.5 points, 10 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in the Fil Oil. When he plays, original Cameroonian recruit Emmanuel Mbe will have to take the back seat to Aroga.
I expected the Tigers – Archers tussle to be a close one, and indeed it was. It was decided in overtime. It was a match-up between a team with perhaps the most solid starting unit versus the team with probably the deepest bench.
The Tigers are back with the same crew that brought them to last year’s finals, except for Jeric Fortuna. Jeric Teng, Kevin Ferrer, Aljon Mariano and Karim Abdul make an imposing team on the floor that’s very difficult to match up with. This unit, together with Clark Bautista, is not only tall but also deep in talent. Except for Abdul, all can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc as well as penetrate with explosive dribble drives, and even occasionally, post up. Abdul, on the other hand, is an excellent inside operator that can impose his will if not doubled. If somebody from the Tigers’ bench could emulate at least 80% of what Fortuna did for the team last year at the point guard position, UST could be the team to beat.
The Green Archers, I think, have the deepest rotation talent-wise. Ironically, they have technically the shallowest bench with only 13 players in their roster. But all 13 players have the ability to shine. La Salle has undeniably one of the best recruitment programs in the country and it has some of the most sought after players from high school.
Take for instance the point guard spot. The Archers have veteran playmaker LA Revilla, sophomore sensation Thomas Torres, and former high school standouts Robert Bolick and Kib Montalbo. They also have an intimidating frontline with Norbert Torres, Arnold Van Opstal, and Jason Perkins. Then of course, they have highly reliable outside players in Jeron Teng, Almond Vosotros and Gabby Reyes. You can hardly even notice that former ace shooters Jarelan Tampus and Luis Dela Paz are still in the line-up.
But the opening day encounter belonged to the Tigers that rode on the superb game of Jeric Teng, who led all scorers with 23 points. Abdul posted his first double-double of 17 markers and 10 boards, on top of three blocks.
It was a tight battle that saw four deadlocks and four lead changes. DLSU even outrebounded UST, 52-44, with Norbert Torres hauling down a game-high 13 caroms. But the Green Archers committed 24 turnovers.
In the end, the Tigers’ experience came in handy against the younger Archers as they completed the 63-58 triumph in extra period. The silver lining for La Salle was the impressive debut of rookie Jason Perkins, who had 13 points and nine rebounds. His mid-range jumper was the one that sent the game into overtime, thanks to a play designed by newly appointed coach Juno Sauler after a technical time-out was called due to a pen spotted on the playing court.
Host Adamson looked sharp against a young UP squad en route to a 79-67 victory. The Falcons shot an amazing 48.4% total field goals in that game. It was an incredible display of balanced scoring with Jericho Cruz leading the charge with 19 points, and Ingrid Sewa, Roider Cabrera, Rodney Brondial, Harry Petilos and Ar-Raouf Julkipli adding 15, 11, 9, 8 and 8 points respectively.
On the other hand, the Fighting Maroons shot 3 out of 13 from the arc, with former La Salle ace Sammy Marata firing all the three made baskets. He topscored with 20 points, followed by Raul Soyud and Renzar Asilum who had 10 apiece.
Despite the lopsided game however, there were three lead changes as the Maroons fought gallantly but just could not capitalize on the Falcons’ 24 turnovers. They were also badly outrebounded by Adamson, 29-53.
Both Adamson and UP are considered by many as the least likely teams to make it to the Final Four. But the Falcons won’t be easy prey this year as they have a respectable ten-man rotation, with a decent starting unit.
But the opening day belonged to FEU, which pulled off a surprising 89-78 upending of season favorite UE. The Tamaraws, which failed to make it to the quarterfinals of the Fil Oil Cup, rode on the dazzling performance of Terrence Romeo to upset the heavily favored Red Warriors. UE won the Fil Oil Cup crown just two weeks ago.
Romeo proved to everybody that he can be a team player, and more importantly, that he can work with fellow star guard RR Garcia. He almost achieved a rare triple-double, with 23 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. Former UAAP MVP Garcia added 18 markers including three triples, two of which were feeds from Romeo during the crucial stages of the fourth period when UE tried to stage a comeback.
But credit must be given to new chief tactician Nash Racela, who preached the importance of teamwork and discipline from the very start. At least in this game, he was able to make Romeo and Garcia, who were long rumored to have been squabbling, play beautiful music together.
The Tams scored 24 points off the Warriors’ 19 miscues. They also had 17 fast break points as opposed to only seven for UE, and unloaded nine triples total. FEU bounced back strong after trailing at the end of the opening canto, 11-21.
It surely is a wide-open race in the UAAP this year. NU, FEU and UST were very impressive on opening day and may be shoo-ins for the top four spots. But when Ravena returns in full battle gear, the five-peat champs will remain as a strong contender. Meanwhile, Green Archers are expected to get better as they get more accustomed to Sauler’s coaching style. And host Adamson is very much capable of pulling off some upset wins to be able to keep up with the more favored squads.
This is only the beginning.
Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.