It’s a ground battle between the Bulldogs and the Tamaraws. Both teams are carrying ghosts they want to exorcise – NU last reaching the Finals more than four decades ago and the Tams losing the past two (or three) Finals showdown they’ve had.

It goes without saying that both teams worked hard to climb out of the shadows of being underdogs. The Bulldogs did this by taking what they did best last year and pushing it to the next level – the Bulldogs are once again the best in defense, closely followed by the Red Warriors. They allow just 78.4 points per 100 possessions, about 8.1 points per 100 better than league average – a huge improvement considering that they allowed 84.8 points per 100 possession last year or about 5.6 points below league average. They have done this behind a disciplined defense that leverages their length; long arms to contest shots inside the paint, a disciplined defensive system in place to not allow these long arms to gamble on high-risk steals.

Meanwhile, the FEU Tamaraws have stuck to their identity through the last four years – a great offensive team with an average defense. They’re basically the Blue Eagles without the defensive problems. Behind Belo’s excellence and Coach Nash’s ever-evolving dribble-drive offense, the Tams have finally broken through the droughts of not advancing to the Finals.

The unlikeliest of outcomes and yet, here we are: offense meets defense in what is basketball’s equivalent of fire and ice. What are the keys to the game?

Pick your poison

Both teams have shown the aptitude of working the pick to the advantage of their chosen side of the court. For the Tamaraws, their dribble handoffs and how they execute pick-and-roll/pops is beautiful, even more so now that the offense has been more spread than ever before. This is possible not only because they have ballhandlers who know how to probe a defense (Tolomia and Inigo) but it’s also because they have a deep set of interchangeable bigs, most prominent among them is a member of the Mythical Five, Mac Belo. He epitomizes what allows FEU to completely crush opponents with an endless barrage of picks and handoffs – quick and slick, shooting ability to go with the intuition to know when to roll and when to pop, when to attack and when to post up, when to take advantage of a match-up and when to reset the offense. It’s what allowed FEU to grab the 3rd best offense, 4.4 points per 100 above average.

For NU, their ability to stifle an offense with their long arms is championship-worthy. NU has the ability to do multiple 3-4 minute defensive lockdowns in a game, their long arms challenging shots and making everything hard for the opponent. This is more evident when you watch them play Pacers-style defense on opponents, with Aroga dropping low on picks. They don’t ice as much but their discipline and their strategy work hand in hand to allow Aroga, Betayene, Rosario or Khobuntin to wreak havoc and grind offensive sets to a halt. They took down the league leading offense of Ateneo to just barely average. That was a product of a bad match-up and a psychological advantage. Both of those won’t hold against a much more balanced offensive attack like the Tams.

Battle of the Glass

Despite their size disadvantage, FEU’s found ways to be among the best defensive rebounding teams in the league. Mac Belo (17.3% DRB), Hargrove (16.5) and Pogoy (16.4) carry the banner but becoming a good defensive rebounding team is a team effort – Carl Cruz, who’s rebounding just 12 percent of the opponent’s misses, boxes out really well. Those things don’t show up on the scoreboard but they’re important to team success.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, were a great rebounding team last year. Add Aroga to the equation and they become an excellent rebounding team. FEU is not going to win the battle of rebounds on their side of the court – their players are too spread out and too far from the hoop on most sets for them to dominate that part. It’s on the defensive side, where NU grabs more than 1/3 of their misses, where the real war will be. If they can get out on breaks, it’ll allow them to get easy baskets. Those easy baskets can help especially when you’re facing a defensive behemoth like NU.

Hunger drives Success

Both teams have felt the pangs of defeat. To me, an important aspect of this game is who’ll go out swinging. Both teams just played hard-fought games last Wednesday and in the UAAP, playing on a Saturday after a Wednesday game counts as a back-to-back. Muscles will be aching (or at least, stinging) and emotions will be high. Whoever uses this hunger well to motivate themselves to push harder – getting those lose balls on tapouts, rebounding, attacking the basket despite the enormous obstacles along the way, etc…

Hunger and Emotion are powerful agents of action. Whether this action leads to good things all depend on control. Get too hungry and emotional and you’ll find yourself over-exerting and under-achieving in the process. If you don’t put in enough hunger and emotion, you’ll find yourself lagging behind early.

Striking that right balance will be imperative, for both teams.

Both teams deserve to be here. They worked long and hard to earn this spot and they will not waste it. FEU’s offensive attack is among the best and most balanced in the league. Belo, a worthy MVP holder by my book, will lead the offensive charge for the Tams. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will rely on grinding games out to a pulp – minimizing possessions, drawing the shot clock out and forcing opponents to crowded spots for tough shots.

As always, it’s a tough call to make but I’m calling a FEU win.