Tigers not endangered this year

The UST Tigers have had reason to celebrate in the first round. (NPPA Images)

Season 75 of the UAAP started with defending four-year champion Ateneo and National University as heavy favorites to contest the men's basketball title. But the Growling Tigers of UST have rained in the Blue Eagles' (71-70) and Bulldogs' (77-71) parade so far in the first round, with surprise victories over both fancied squads.

The Tigers are currently in solo third with a 3-1 card, behind Ateneo and FEU, which both have 5-1 records, and NU (4-2). They are on a three-game winning streak after dropping their very first game to the Tamaraws (72-73) on opening day. They also overwhelmed La Salle in double overtime, 84-82.

Currently the no. 1 offensive team, UST averages 76 points per game, with 32 markers coming from perimeter shots. The Thomasians are also the best in three-point field goals, with 32.5%. They likewise rank first in turnover points (18 points per game) and second chance points (12.5 points per game), and second in rebounds (48.3 per game) and free throws made.

The emergence of the Tigers as a serious contender for this year's crown came as a surprise to many. Although they made it to the Final Four last year, and lost a close game to eventual champions Blue Eagles in the semis (66-69), the Tigers were never really considered as potent challengers in Season 75 until their shocking upset wins over ADMU and NU. During the pre-season tournament Fil-Oil Cup, UST succumbed to eventual champion NU, 68-77.

But if we closely look at the Tigers' roster, we will find that they are solid in all positions. Their starting five can match up well with any team in the UAAP, including the Eagles and Bulldogs. Sophomore player Karim Abdul leads the Tigers in scoring and rebounding with 16.3 markers and 13 boards per game. The bull-strong African center actually ranks first in the league in rebounding and total field goals, and fourth in scoring. He provides the inside points for UST as well as a sturdy defensive wall in the middle. On the other hand, fourth year player Jeric Teng provides the outside artillery for the Tigers as he leads the league in three-point field goal percentage with an impressive 48%. He averages 16 points per game, which is fifth best in the league. At the guard position, Clark Bautista and Jeric Fortuna have been remarkable. The dynamic duo combines for 18.3 points and 7.3 assists per outing. Fortuna actually leads the UAAP in assists, alongside reigning MVP Bobby Ray Parks Jr. with 5.3 per game, while Bautista is next to Teng in the league in three-point field goals. Still, another important player for the Espana-based squad is second-year player Kevin Ferrer, who collects 4.8 markers, 7 boards and 1.5 assists per game.

But what has been the biggest lift for Coach Pido Jarencio this year is the resurgence of Aljon Mariano, who skipped the 2011 season due to an injury. The former San Beda Red Cub has been playing inspired games in his comeback, including hitting the big shots. His corner jumper with 7.1 ticks left in the game versus the Green Archers gave UST the thrilling 84-82 double overtime victory. Against the Blue Eagles, Mariano hit 13 of his 21 points in the third quarter to help the Tigers claw back from a 19-point deficit, and complete the upset win. His norms are 14 points (No.9 in the league), 8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

Jarencio has more reliable players this season, and not wanting in skills and experience. And the reason why the Tigers are tough to beat is because of their ability to connect from beyond the arc. If the defense extends outside, Abdul can impose his will inside the paint.
But if the Tigers want to go all the way this season, they must step up defensively. They are the second-worst team in the league in defense, allowing opponents an average of 74 points per game. They also commit the most fouls per game, with 23.3.

Another chink in its armor is UST's shallow bench. Only seven Tigers see more than 15 minutes per game. Carmelo Afuang is the seventh man off the bench and he plays about 16 minutes per game. Next to him is Paolo Pe with just 7.3 minutes. Abdul, Fortuna and Mariano are all seeing action for over 30 minutes each game.

UST next plays winless teams UE and UP on August 12 and 15 respectively and is expected to hurdle both assignments. The Tigers are expected to end the first round on top of the standings together with Ateneo, if the Eagles are victorious over FEU in their August 18 tussle. This puts UST in a very good position to secure another semis berth. And if the Tigers can repeat over NU and Ateneo in the second round, or avenge their loss to FEU, they might even gain a twice-to-beat edge.

At this point however, the Tigers are far from reaching that goal. They cannot afford to let down their guard, or the other hunters might just send them back to the endangered species list.

We can expect five teams to slug it out for the four semis slots — Ateneo, NU, FEU, La Salle and UST. If the Tigers can sustain their incredible offense and stamina until the end of the next round, they could land at No. 2. My guess is that the Tamaraws and Archers will contest the fourth spot.

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.