After the first round of basketball hostilities in this 75th UAAP Season, we can see some overachievers and underachievers among the teams. Perhaps the only teams that met expectations are defending four-year champion Ateneo and UE. The Blue Eagles are indeed expected to land in the top two spots and reach the finals. When the smoke cleared, they are tied with the UST Growling Tigers at first place.
So after the first round, I graded each team according to how they fared versus expectations, with 1.0 being the highest grade and 4.0 the lowest.
1. Ateneo Blue Eagles. Ateneo leads the league in offense and defense, averaging 74.4 points per game, and limiting opponents to a norm of just 63.7 markers per outing. Its main strength is inside scoring, with a total of 134 points in seven games or 38.3 per game. This is mainly because of the Eagles' towering frontline of Greg Slaughter, Justin Chua, JP Erram and Frank Golla. But the 6'11" Slaughter is such a dominating player this season, posting norms of 14.9 points, 8.9 boards and 2.9 blocks, and a remarkable 47.6% shooting clip. The former Smart Gilas center is simply unstoppable so far and Coach Norman Black will always want the ball to be in Slaughter's hands inside the paint. The Eagles' main weakness is the point guard position, but so far, it has not been a major factor. Nico Salva and Kiefer Ravena provide the scoring support with 14.6 and 13.7 points respectively. In the second round, Black's magic will be put to the test as teams like NU, UST, FEU and La Salle will try to stymie Ateneo's inside attack. But if Ravena, Ryan Buenafe, Juami Tiongson and Tonino Gonzaga connect with their outside shots, the Blue Eagles can take home a fifth straight crown. Grade: 1.25
2. UST Growling Tigers. The biggest overachiever so far is UST, which defeated heavy favorites Ateneo and NU. Coach Pido Jarencio has dug deep in his bag of tricks to upstage the bigger and deeper Bulldogs and Eagles, and also the dangerous Green Archers. It's amazing how the Tigers have responded to Jarencio's challenge to achieve greater things. Current MVP top contender Karim Abdul has been the big difference for UST in the first round, posting outstanding numbers of 17.6 points (no. 2 in the league), a league-best 13.6 rebounds, and 1.6 swats, and 1.6 steals per outing. But Abdul gets a lot of help too, with Jeric Teng providing 16 points per game (no. 6), including a hot 48% sniping from behind the arc, Clark Bautista, Jeric Fortuna, Kevin Ferrer, and a rejuvenated Aljon Mariano. The Tigers are this year's best outside shooting team, with over 30% success in their three-point shots, and a league-best 30 points per outing from the perimeter. But I worry about them in the second round since Jarencio normally fields in only seven players over 15 minutes. In fact, Abdul, Fortuna and Mariano are logging over 30 minutes on the floor. Endurance will be a factor in the second round's tough grind. Still, the Tigers have surprised many with their amazing run so far. Grade: 1.0.
3. NU Bulldogs. After sweeping the Fil-Oil Cup during the summer, the Bulldogs became the top-seed heading towards the UAAP season. They even clobbered the Blue Eagles during the pre-season. But Ateneo more than avenged that defeat by thrashing NU, 89-65, on July 22. This was truly shocking, considering that the Bulldogs are solid in all positions this year, plus they have reigning MVP Bobby Ray Parks, Jr. Sure, they can lose to a team like Ateneo. But not this way. They absorbed two more surprising losses against UST (71-77) and La Salle (86-87). With a formidable roster, the Bulldogs' problem is more mental than physical. They need to get their act together and focus on one game at a time. Fortunately, they have veteran mentor and motivator Eric Altamirano to lead them. And they have the whole second round to turn things around. Grade: 2.5.
4. FEU Tamaraws. Last year's finalist FEU had a great start with four straight W's before finally losing steam against NU, 57-61, on August 2. Its second loss came at the hands of league leader Ateneo in a close encounter, 71-74. The Tamaraws' victories over UST (73-72), DLSU (48-46), Adamson (65-62), and UP (73-70) were all close. Their only convincing win was against UE, 92-66. Only two Tamaraws — Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia — are scoring in twin digits for the team, with 16.7 and 12.6 points respectively. This duo may be the best guard combo in the league but they cannot carry the team by themselves. FEU needs more production inside. Coach Bert Flores must find ways for Anthony Hargrove, Arvie Bringas and Russell Escoto to get their fingers in the scoring pie to achieve a more balanced offense. In the second round, all teams will clamp down on Romeo and Garcia. Defensively, the Tams are the second best in the league, allowing opponents just 64.4 per game. It's their offense that needs a shot in the arm. Grade: 2.0.
5. De La Salle Green Archers. After what I saw in the Fil-Oil Cup when DLSU managed to upset stronger foes and engaged NU in a fierce championship game, I thought the Archers would be this season's dark horse. So far, it's turning out to be UST. But it's undeniable that La Salle is a much stronger and deeper squad now, with more reliable scorers and big men. This team has the height and speed, and certainly bench depth. Jeron Teng is surely a major boost to the Archers' campaign this year, leading the team in scoring with over 16 points per game. Currently tied at fourth to fifth spots with NU, La Salle had tough losses against the Tamaraws (46-48) and Tigers (82-84), before startling the Bulldogs with an upset win, 87-86. The Archers' deep rotation could be the key to making it to the semis this year. Coach Gee Abanilla will need to stretch his bench to gain an advantage over UST and FEU in the next round. I think these two teams are the biggest threat to La Salle's entry to the Final Four. Grade: 1.75.
6. Adamson Falcons. It's no surprise that last year's semifinalist Adamson is struggling this year. The Soaring Falcons have lost several of their main men, including top point guards Lester Alvarez and Jerick Canada. Compounding their woes was the shoulder injury suffered by top gunner Alex Nuyles. But I thought the Falcons could have garnered more than just a single win in the first round. Coach Leo Austria's boys badly need leadership on the court at this point, especially offensively. Eric Camson's team-best 13 point-output per game just isn't enough. Rodney Brondial, and the rest of the Falcons must chip in more. Though their losses to FEU, La Salle and UST were tight, the 66-71 setback to UE was painful. Now they share the cellar with the Maroons and Warriors, at 1-6. Grade: 4.0.
7. UP Fighting Maroons. I expected more from the Maroons this year. I thought they had a more balanced line-up now with several players able to contribute in offense. UP also has more big men to rotate with now headed by American Cris Ball, Raul Soyud and Paolo Romero. But go-to-guy Mike Silungan is playing below his potential, averaging a mediocre 8.4 markers per game, when he should be collecting 12 to 15. UP's best scorer is Mark Lopez, with only 10.4 points per game. The starters must all improve their numbers, while the second stringers must be able to post significant stats to help the squad in the next round. Coach Ricky Dandan will need to produce some surprise performances from his bench to at least finish the season at 6th spot. UP may still be a young squad but it has to speed up its maturity in order to finally escape the bottom of the standings. Grade: 4.0.
8. UE Red Warriors. Apart from Ateneo, UE is the only team that's in a spot most people expected it to be. The good thing is that the Warriors are not alone in the cellar. They had one notable victory against the Falcons but got blown out by the rest of the field, including co-bottom dweller UP. The Warriors have undergone a major overhaul from last year and had to rely heavily on a few holdovers like Roi Sumang, Jhon Rey Sumido and Chris Javier. It's a big question now how the team will respond to new coach Boysie Zamar, who was tapped to replace Jerry Codinera just hours ago. Not much can be expected now in the second round from UE. I'd be surprised if they notch another W this season. Grade: 3.5.
The second round will be very interesting. I expect the Blue Eagles to remain on top. But I see a wild scramble for the second to fourth spots among the Tigers, Bulldogs, Tamaraws and Archers. In the second round, every game will be crucial for these four schools.