The joy of a championship rests not on the attainment of the goal; the paper, the crown, the ring that accompanies with winning that decisive game. No.
The joy of a championship is born from the sweetness that comes out of the bitter taste of sweat. It is born out of the rest you get after a long and arduous practice. It is born out of the inevitable pain that comes from the bumps and bruises you get from all the tumbling and the turning, the jumping and the running. It is born out of the grief of defeat and the shame of regret, that inescapable feeling that you could have done better.
Unbridled joy springing from the mountain of obstacle you had to overcome. It isn’t the amount of sweat you put on the court but rather how much sweat you put off it.
Yes, a championship is defined not by the joys but by the pains.
Season 76 is almost upon us and the Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles are entering the tournament with more questions than they can answer. Ateneo is in for one hell of a tournament, the memory of a championship buried beneath the injuries, departures and changes that the team is undergoing.
Gone is Greg Slaughter, the 7’0″ behemoth of a man that made sure that the paint would be the Eagles’ strongest suit. Gone are his wide, towering shoulders and presence that anchored Ateneo’s defense to be among the league’s elite.
Gone is Nico Salva, the versatile forward who offered almost everything in the way of scoring. Between his hook shots, his jumper and his controlled assaults at the rim, Salva was the beacon of light that guided our offense to the top.
Gone is Oping Sumalinog, the definition of a “glue guy.” He was the type of player needed beside Ateneo’s Big 3 – enough shooting to make defenses honest when they try to harass them, not needing touches to make his impact felt and a quiet and steely demeanor that was content on being in the background.
Gone is Justin Chua, who recently made a mark in the PBA D-League Finals, and his abilities not only as a basketball player but also his character. He was a player that could start for some other collegiate team but remained in Ateneo because he knew the value of a great big man and the impact of winning multiple titles to his name.
Gone is Tonino Gonzaga, whose pesky defense hounded perimeter scorers. From RR Garcia to Terrence Romeo, down to Roi Sumang and Almond Vosotros.
And lastly, gone is Norman Black; his system, which the Eagles have ran for the better part of the last decade, nowhere to be found. No longer will you see an imposing person walking in the sideline, with his eyebrows crumpled like paper and his mind running wild with ideas.
All of them gone.
|Greg Slaughter||Kiefer Ravena||Chris Newsome|
|Nico Salva||Juami Tiongson||Vince Tolentino|
|Chris Sumalinog||Ryan Buenafe||Earl Murphy|
|Justin Chua||Frank Golla||Ivan Enriquez|
|Tonino Gonzaga||Von Pessumal||Anton Asistio|
In Coach Norman’s stead is Dolreich “Bo” Perasol, installing a system different from Coach Norman’s, that will highlight what’s left of that team that made the historic run last year. And even though we lost four good soldiers and one beloved general, we still have good ones still playing; we’re welcoming new soldiers and we’re welcoming a new general. Graduation, as they say, is not a story of endings but the story of beginnings. There’s a reason they call Graduation as “Commencement Exercises.”
With the massive exodus of talent after Season 75, nobody has any idea what the strengths of the team formed by the remnants of the championship team and the new additions are. Here’s a quick summation:
Kiefer. Isaac. Ravena.
There is no doubt that THIS is Kiefer’s team now. While he had players who could carry the bulk of the load for him in the past two seasons, he no longer has them now. He’s the one that everybody is looking at now for answers. If the pre-season is any indication, Kiefer Ravena is exceeding expectations. Not like that is surprising (the guy’s been breaking any and all expectations since his first year in HS). Players like him, players that are tasked to be the focal point of their team’s offense, are expected to be efficient weapons while having high usage rates. Kiefer, to this point, is performing admirably and there’s no indication that he can’t do it over the course of a 14-game season. Below is his statline from Season 75 and from the FilOil:
With the exception of Kiefer’s shooting, he’s improved or maintained most of his relevant statistic. Even more impressive is the fact that he was able to double his assist rate all while increasing his usage rate and cutting down on his turnover percentage by 5% (when the entire gameplan of the other team is to stop you, it’s almost expected that you’ll have a high turnover rate). The increase in defensive rebounding rate is almost a natural progression given Chua and Slaughter’s departure but the increased versatility in Kiefer’s offensive output in the offseason is a welcome sign that he can indeed carry the load of a team offense, and carry it well. Even more encouraging is the versatility he displayed. Last season, Kiefer was used almost exclusively in ball screen actions (whether they’re from quick hitting side pick-and-roll/pop or from a 4-out set) or in isolation in Ateneo’s halfcourt sets. This year, he’s shown a markedly improved post game attributed to his US training. I’m not all too happy with him taking more mid-range jumpers but as with most high volume scorers (locally or internationally), some semblance of mid-range game is needed to sustain such a task.
Three players will be called upon primarily to help flank Ateneo’s greatest strength – Juami Tiongson, Von Pessumal and Chris Newsome.
Juami Tiongson was the reliable, sweet-shooting guard that filled in the cracks that the other three (Slaughter, Salva, Ravena) plus one other (whoever the other guy was) needed. You need someone to run the offense? He can do it. You need him to play Robin to Kiefer’s Batman? He can do it. You need him to push the pace? He can do it. There are quirks, to be sure. For one, his turnover rates are quite high (18.8% turnover rate in Season 75, 18% turnover rate in the 2013 FilOil tournament) and his inability to consistently finish inside is troubling. He’s not a game changing perimeter defender but adequate enough not to be a liability as well. As such, he’s more than enough to be the Robin to Kiefer’s Batman.
Von Pessumal was having a great preseason before he injured his finger. Before that, the guy was on a roll. He hit 15 of his 26 attempts from downtown and overall registered an offensive rating of 109.9 in the FilOil tournament (usage rate of 22%). Those are incredibly efficient numbers in 20 minutes of play. If his injury does not drastically alter his confidence or his shot, then expect a breakout season from Von. If that happens, it will probably be the most fun Ateneo team I’ll watch in six years (I love threes, especially corner threes).
Chris Newsome, the Fil-Am recruit, will become the small ball big that Coach Bo Perasol’s screen-heavy offense needs. He’s only 6’2″ but his long arms, chiseled frame and relentless motor work harmoniously together to compensate for Ateneo’s lack of skilled big men at the level of Salva, Slaughter or Chua. His rebounding splits read 8/25/17 – tremendous numbers for a big man much less a player who weighs and stands smaller than an ideal inside player. His assist rate, a measure of how many field goals he assisted on while he was on the court, stands at 23.2%, speaking volumes to his ability to create shots for others. Ideally, he’d be a perimeter player, working as Kiefer’s second banana in shot creation (with Juami a close 3rd). His role won’t change — he’ll still be asked to create from time-to-time while being a premier perimeter defender for Ateneo. But he’ll also be asked to defend inside: using his hops to challenge off-the-ball, his quickness and smarts to rotate effectively on cuts and drives and make use of his long arms and chiseled frame to front or maybe push post players out of position when they try to take advantage of Ateneo’s “weakness” inside. If Kiefer is Batman and Juami is Robin, then Chris is Commissioner Gordon. He’ll fill in whatever Batman and Robin need at any occasion.
Those four form a lineup that would be a terror to almost any collegiate defense. The amount of shooting, shot creation and versatility in that lineup would be a terror to any defense. The size issue will still linger even if that lineup succeeds.
They’ll also have Nico Elorde and Ryan Buenafe – both players are more comfortable working the perimeter than the inside – not to mention Frank Golla and Earl Murphy.
There is no doubt that Ateneo’s strength this season comes from the perimeter, with possibly six rotation players more comfortable located all the way out in the perimeter. An outside-in attack is totally different from an inside-out attack (like the past two years). An inside-out attack is more consistent (due to the nature of the shots you take) than an outside-in attack. Even if Ateneo yielded a similar offensive rating as in year’s past, I’m going to bet that the highs will be higher and the lows will be lower. Such is the nature of a team built on the perimeter.
Ask any Ateneo fan: “What is Ateneo’s biggest weakness coming into Season 76?” And they’ll answer “big men” without hesitation.
No disrespect to Frank Golla, Vince Tolentino, Giboy Babilonia and the rest of Ateneo’s bigs but most of them are either unproven or “average.”
With the league slowly welcoming hulking bigs such as Ingrid Sewa (Adamson), Charles Mammie (UE) and Jason Perkins (DLSU), not to mention returning players such as Anthony Hargrove (FEU), Alfred Aroga (NU) and Karim Abdul (UST). The league is getting taller and stronger so the need for an interior anchor becomes even more apparent.
Sadly, Ateneo has no one consistent enough to be that. Even the most loyal Atenean and Ateneo fan will cringe at the thought of Golla as the lone defender we can reliably throw at these big men. This wouldn’t be as big as a problem right now if Poy Erram was healthy (he tore his ACL near the end of Season 75 meaning he’s only been in rehab/recovery for approximately 10 months). But he’s not, and you deal with the cards you are dealt with.
Even with Kiefer Ravena and Chris Newsome shouldering some of the rebounding load, you can’t realistically expect Golla – who had rebounding splits of 13/10/11 back in Season 75 and rebounding splits of 9/13/11 in the FilOil Flying V tournament – to somehow cover Slaughter’s rebounding. And with all these injuries decimating Ateneo’s list of playable big man, this weakness is becoming more evident by the day. Hopefully, withdrawing early gives them some added time to recuperate and re-group.
Without a doubt, it’s going to Kiefer. Hopefully, I can have a complete blow-by-blow scouting report on Kiefer but the gist of it: he’s awesome.
I’m expecting a great season from both Newsome and Tiongson – players that Kiefer can realistically expect to help him shoulder the load offensively and defensively.
So the X-factor won’t come from them. Instead, I’m looking at Von Pessumal as the X-Factor for this team. If he plays anywhere near the level he played in the FilOil, we can expect Ateneo to once again be one of the better teams in the league. He plays closer to his Season 75 self (54.1 ORTG, TS% of just 22.3%, nothing in the way of rebounds nor steals) and Ateneo will find itself scrounging for any sort of fourth player production on any given night. If Von Pessumal can provide that consistent fourth option on offense while being the lockdown, positional defender he’s known to be (and he did show flashes of this last season), then Ateneo is going to be a sure-fire title contender.
In a perfect world, with Pessumal and Erram completely healthy, and Ateneo sporting a lineup of Tiongson/Ravena/Pessumal/Newsome/Erram, I’d be surprised if they win less than 10 games. But the reality of the matter is that Pessumal suffered an injury a few weeks back and Erram is still recovering from a knee injury. That’s not even considering the mystery surrounding Ryan Buenafe’s sudden inability to play well and the numerous injuries that the team is going through.
But after giving it some thought, I’m expecting a record of 9-5 or 8-6 and another trip to the Final Four where they’ll plow through the adversity with or without a twice-to-beat advantage. In reality, I’m not expecting anything (unlike last year when I would have been disappointed if we didn’t win it all). This can be construed as a good thing (this is an open season and will make the UAAP season all the more exciting) or a bad thing (Ateneo will have a hard time winning a sixth straight UAAP crown).
I just feel like the team’s new offensive identity will surprise other teams. Between Kiefer’s expected ascension to King Eagle and Newsome’s ability to not only outpace the other team’s big but also to effectively be part of Ateneo’s possible 4-out sets and also his ability to quickly cover space in closeouts, isolation or on helps, I think Ateneo can make life a living hell for the other seven teams. The question is whether they can respond to physicality and when a team successfully breaks them from the inside (which is very much a possibility).
What is certain though is that:
- Kiefer Ravena will have an MVP-worthy season that can possibly dethrone Parks as the de-facto MVP.
- Chris Newsome is going to be a versatile work horse for the team, able to fill the holes that his other four teammates can’t provide. He’ll rebound tirelessly, jockey for position down low defensively and attack the break relentlessly and occasionally create for others.
- This will be the hardest season (possibly even harder than Season 73) that the Eagles will have in recent memory. Not only will the rest of the league catch up with Ateneo’s talent but the amount of change Ateneo has had to go through will make this a roller coaster season. That will make a championship this season (a sixth straight, I might add, and one ‘chip away from tying UE’s seven straight championships) all the more sweeter. All right, I take that back. /reverse jinx.
- Win or Lose, I’ll be damn proud about this team and whatever they accomplish this season.
UAAP Season 76 Team Previews
|Ateneo Blue Eagles||UST Growling Tigers||NU Bulldogs||De La Salle Green Archers|
|FEU Tamaraws||Adamson Soaring Falcons||UE Red Warriors||UP Fighting Maroons|