UAAP Season 75: Ateneo, NU, FEU are top contenders
MANILA, Philippines – The UAAP Season 75 men’s basketball tournament will kick off on Saturday, July 14, and once again, the defending champion Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles are considered as the favorites to win the title.
The Blue Eagles are aiming to win a fifth straight UAAP championship in what will be Coach Norman Black’s last year at the helm of the successful program.
Standing in the way of the Blue Eagles are last year’s finalists, the Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, who are itching to get back to the top of UAAP men's basketball after two successive bridesmaid finishes.
Another top contender is the season’s host, the National University (NU) Bulldogs, with a revamped roster that features reigning Most Valuable Player Bobby Ray Parks, Jr., and dominant big man Emmanuel Mbe.
Ateneo Blue Eagles
Season 74 recap: The Blue Eagles finished with a 13-1 record, losing their last game of the elimination round to the Adamson Soaring Falcons and thus failing to complete a historic sweep. But the Eagles still had the twice-to-beat advantage, and they proceeded to beat the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the Final Four, before sweeping the FEU Tamaraws in the Finals.
It was Ateneo’s fourth straight UAAP championship. Nico Salva won the Finals MVP award. Newcomers Greg Slaughter and Kiefer Ravena also made an impact, with both players making the Mythical Five. Ravena also won the Rookie of the Year Award.
Key losses: Emman Monfort, Kirk Long and Bacon Austria
Key additions: Nico Elorde, Kris Porter, Ryan Buenafe (returnee)
Preview: The Blue Eagles will still have one of the most dominant big men in the UAAP in Slaughter, as well as the highly-talented Ravena and a slew of veteran role players. They also have a deep bench, led by the comebacking Ryan Buenafe, who was the Finals MVP in Season 73. Moreover, they have the all-important “championship experience” and a tried-and-tested system. Combine all these, and it makes sense that the Eagles are again among the title favorites.
But Ateneo will be tested this year, especially in their perimeter defense. Monfort and Long were two of their best defenders and also provided the veteran leadership. It also remains to be seen how the looming departure of Norman Black will affect the focus of the Eagles.
It is unlikely that the Blue Eagles will pull off another 13-game winning streak the way they did last season, but this squad clearly has what it takes to, at the very least, make it back to the UAAP Finals.
What they said: “I’m not really into records. I’m not really into setting records that won’t be broken into the future. I’m just into winning, that’s it. Winning for the moment, winning for today.” – Coach Norman Black
National University Bulldogs
Season 74 recap: The NU Bulldogs finished with a 6-8 record in Season 74, good for fifth place in the league. But it was somewhat disappointing, as many expected the Bulldogs to make a run to the Final Four with the addition of Parks prior to the season. NU stumbled out of the gates, however, winning only two games in the first round before recovering in the second.
Parks was named season MVP. He was the first player from a non-Final Four team to win the award.
Key losses: Joseph Terson, Robby Celis, Marion Magat, Janno Eman
Key additions: Mark de Guzman, Henry Betayane, Troy Rosario
Preview: Much is expected of the Bulldogs this season. Not only are they hosting the UAAP, but they also made a lot of noise after an unbeaten run in the Fil-Oil Flying V Pre-Season Cup, wherein they defeated De La Salle in the Finals.
Parks has showed off a more well-rounded game in the pre-season, scoring less but involving his teammates more. Mbe, who was in the Mythical Five in Season 73, is back in playing shape and has shown flashes of brilliance. The Bulldogs are also expected to get major contributions from Ajeet Singh, who will provide perimeter defense, and point guard Gelo Alolino, who also showed improvement in the pre-season.
But NU head coach Eric Altamarino will be the first to admit that the Bulldogs are far from a finished product. “We’re still a young team, and being a young team, there’s a tendency to be inconsistent and distracted,” he said.
Altamirano said they have been working on these issues in practice, and notes that youth has its own advantages as well. “They are full of energy, and in terms of acquiring good habits and discipline, it’s easy,” he said.
With two of the UAAP’s best players in their team, the Bulldogs have a great chance of ending a UAAP championship drought that dates all the way back to 1954.
What they said: “Winning the Fil-Oil is good, but we didn’t prepare last year, we didn’t prepare after the season, we didn’t prepare in November to win the Fil-Oil. We prepare to win in the UAAP.” – Coach Eric Altamirano
Far Eastern University
Season 74 recap: The Far Eastern University Tamaraws finished the elimination round with a 9-5 record and the third seed. In the Final Four, they upset the Adamson Falcons, who held a twice-to-beat advantage, to make the Finals for the second straight season. And for the second straight season, they were swept by the Blue Eagles.
Big man Aldrech Ramos was named to the Mythical Five, but Season 73 MVP RR Garcia shockingly missed the cut.
Key losses: Aldrech Ramos, Jens Knuttel, Pipo Noundou, JR Cawaling, Ping Exciminiano
Key additions: Anthony Hargrove, Arvie Bringas
Preview: The Tamaraws lost five of their most important players but remain among the top contenders thanks to the presence of their guards, Garcia and Terrence Romeo, who are among the best in the UAAP. Garcia was the MVP in Season 73, while Romeo was the Rookie of the Year that season as well.
Garcia and Romeo are both capable of scoring 20 points per game, but head coach Bert Flores said he wants to see his two guards involve their teammates more in the Tams’ offensive sets. The Tamaraws will also have a solid frontline, led by the much-improved Russell Escoto, Hargrove, and the Bringas brothers, Arvie and Mark. These four players will be called upon to provide the inside presence for the Tamaraws, especially as rebounding was one of their main weaknesses last season.
Moreover, the Tamaraws will surely be motivated to win their first UAAP title since 2005 and prove that third time is indeed the charm. The Tamaraws also hope to be free of the various issues and controversies that have plagued their team in recent seasons.
On paper, the Tamaraws again have one of the strongest line-ups in the UAAP, but it remains to be seen if they will gel on the court. If they manage to put everything together, it won’t be surprising to see the Tams once again make a run to the Finals.
What they said: “Nakita namin na last year, pag sa rebounds umaasa lang kami kay Aldrech, pati sa shot block. Pag wala si Aldrech, wala na... This time, meron na kaming Hargrove at si Arvie Bringas, at si Russell, nag-improve na rin.” – Coach Bert Flores
ABS-CBN's TJ Manotoc contributed to this report.