MANILA, Philippines – Defending champions Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles and hosts National University (NU) Bulldogs are considered the teams to beat even as coaches see a wide-open race in the upcoming Season 75 of the UAAP men's basketball tournament.
"I still believe that Ateneo is still the team to beat, and NU is the top contender," said Adamson head coach Leo Austria during the UAAP Season 75 press conference at the SM Mall of Asia Arena today.
De La Salle head coach Gee Abanilla agreed, saying Ateneo and NU are two of the strongest teams in the UAAP this season.
"I think Ateneo is really strong along with NU, and they (the team) have been together for quite some time," Abanilla said.
"Of course, there's no doubt that Ateneo and NU are two of the top contenders," agreed UP head coach Ricky Dandan. "But I think the rest of the field will have something to say about that."
The UAAP Season 75 will open on Saturday, July 14 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena, with opening ceremonies scheduled to start at 12:30 p.m.
Drive for five
The Blue Eagles, who won their fourth straight title in dominant fashion last year, are aiming to make history again as they gun for their fifth consecutive championship in what will be Coach Norman Black’s last year at the helm.
"Right now, it's not an issue," Black said of his looming departure from the Ateneo. "I'm just treating it like this is my job, and whatever the future holds, I'll think about it when I get there."
The Blue Eagles will once again rely on big man Greg Slaughter and speedy forward Nico Salva, as well as last season’s Rookie of the Year Kiefer Ravena.
Black said the Blue Eagles will be running most of their plays through Slaughter this year, the way they did when former UAAP MVP Rabeh Al-Hussaini was manning the shaded area for Ateneo.
"We know it's going to be difficult," Black said of their campaign this season. "Our perimeter defense will be tested this year, and I expect every game to be tough."
Though the Blue Eagles are once again among the favorites to win the UAAP championship, they face a great challenge from a much improved NU squad that took home the Fil-Oil Flying V Pre-Season championship.
The Bulldogs also have two of the UAAP’s best players in last season’s Most Valuable Player Bobby Ray Parks Jr. and towering big man Emmanuel Mbe.
"We had a good summer tournament, and I hope 'yung record namin sa summer ay madala sa UAAP," NU coach Eric Altamirano said.
"But the UAAP is a different league, and I think each team has the same amount of chance of winning it. Everybody has a chance, and our modest goal is to make it to the Final Four," he added.
The Bulldogs are trying to be the second straight host school to win the UAAP championship, after Ateneo achieved the feat when they hosted the league last season. NU last won the basketball crown in 1954.
"In terms of that record, of course, it will be nice to make history for the school," Altamirano said. "But at this point, all we want is to prepare one game at a time, and be relaxed and not put too much pressure on ourselves."
"But it will be nice for the community and the school to achieve that feat."
The Bulldogs will begin their UAAP Season 75 campaign on Saturday, July 14, following the opening ceremonies. They will face the University of the East Red Warriors in the curtain raiser at 2 p.m, followed by the game between the UST Growling Tigers and the FEU Tamaraws at 4:00 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Blue Eagles will begin their title defense against the Adamson Falcons on Sunday, July 15 at the MOA Arena, following the game between La Salle and UP at 2 p.m.