Just a year ago, the Adamson Soaring Falcons were as dominant as could be in the UAAP. They were erasing leads, making clutch plays and were in every way and shape a title contender. Now, after one round of eliminations, they don’t look that way at all.

What gives?

Early through the first round, coach Franz Pumaren had one comment that kept coming up again and again, “Growing pains of a young team.”

Much of the roster that won 10 games last year was gutted and replaced with new faces. Key figures like Sean Manganti, Jerie Pingoy, Jonathan Espeleta and Papi Sarr could not make it back to the team for one reason or another.

Yet coming into the season, the Falcons were still full of hope owing to their cast of blue-chip recruits and building on the growth they made last year. Jerom Lastimosa was expected to continue his fearless scoring ways, taking over as the designated point guard of the team. Many hoped Simon Camacho who has made leaps and bounds in improvement could continue to expand his game while maintaining the hustle and dedication he is known for.

Recruits like Aaron Fermin and call-ups like AP Manlapaz and Joem Sabandal were expected to form the base of Adamson’s future as present contributors with room to grow. Lenda Douanga was seen as the solution to the rebounding woes that plagued them all season last year.

With the late additions of Valandre Chauca and Aaron Flowers panning out well at the start of the season, there was a lot of rightful optimism to be had for Adamson. Yet as the first round progressed at breakneck speed, Adamson’s hope turned into dismay as close shaves and late game collapses landed them in a log jam for 4th place. Meanwhile teams that they were capable of beating before were out-playing them.

What gives?

An outdated style?

Many fans believe the lackluster play is the result of coach Franz Pumaren’s insistence on using his brand of pressing defense, a call that some consider outdated and ineffective. The press has won Pumaren five UAAP championships in the past, but critics say it doesn’t have a place in the present UAAP climate.

A look at past seasons may indicate that Adamson is simply going through a learning cycle.

The effectiveness of the press can be seen through defensive categories like points allowed, turnovers and turnover points.

Back in Season 79 when Pumaren first took over the Adamson basketball program, the team finished with lackluster rankings but you could see the effects starting to take shape. Adamson was 3rd in points allowed, 4th in turnovers forced and 3rd in turnover points. Compare this to when Adamson was in peak form during Season 81, they were ranked 2nd in points allowed, 2nd in turnovers forced and league leader in points off turnovers. This was Adamson firing at all cylinders and only the Tab Baldwin led Ateneo Blue Eagles were ahead of them in those categories.

So where is Adamson now?

After the first round the stats show that the defense isn’t clicking.

Adamson is ranked 6th in points allowed per game, 4th in turnovers forced and 5th in turnover points. With these three aspects of their game not being effective, it’s no wonder they are struggling to close out games.

Following the ball

So what’s going on? Why is Adamson not as effective defensively?

It starts with the initial ball handler, more precisely, the player defending the initial ball handler.

Last year the press was quite effective because of defenders like Jonathan Espeleta, Jerie Pingoy and Jerom Lastimosa pressing the backcourt. In most cases, Either Lastimosa or Pingoy would be fast enough to funnel the opposing guard to the corner, allowing Espeleta to swoop in for the trap. The Falcons being in peak chemistry at that time; it was a matter of other players like Sean Manganti and Jerrick Ahanmisi recognizing the right rotation to force opponents to make a mistake. Even if opponents somehow survived this trap, it would have taken a lot of time away from their shot clocks.

That doesn’t happen anymore.

Without a high caliber defensive player like Espeleta and the chemistry they once had, the initial ball handler does not face the same difficulties in breaking the press. Not to mention that teams are very much aware of Adamson’s tendency to press and are prepared for it.

Both ends of the spectrum could be seen in the last game of the first round. When Adamson was able to successfully stay in front of Alec Stockton, it resulted in long passes that Adamson was ready to pick away. But when LJ Gonzales was able to blow by Valandre, the secondary defender needing to pick up Gonzales often left Torres open for a triple.

This affects their ability on both ends of the floor. The Falcons don’t have the best offensive ability nor have they been known to. Not being able to make stops hurts their ability to score. No transition points means needing to find points elsewhere, so far they haven’t found that alternate source.

To make matters worse, not being able to force turnovers means opponents get more scoring opportunities. This adds even more pressure on them to score, making their lack of transition baskets an even bigger problem. It’s a vicious cycle that starts and ends with one thing for the Falcons, getting those defensive stops.

Where the bleeding is highest

Adding to the defensive and offensive woes of the Falcons is their tendency to foul opponents and give the ball away. The Soaring Falcons have committed the most fouls in the first round with 22.71 per game. That’s 22 times that they’re turning the ball over, allowing opponents to inbound the ball from the sideline or sending them to the free throw line.

Another thing they need to fix is their turnover frequency. They have the 2nd most turnovers of the first round at 17.43. Fortunately they still have the defensive intensity to bother opponents who they lose the ball to, making them 2nd best at preventing turnover points.

Again, this boils down to their lack of ability to force turnovers. Having teams break the press results in bad defensive position which in turn forces them to make wild fouls to try and come up with a stop. It also hurts them in that they don’t have as many transition offense opportunities and struggle to generate offense of the half court setting.

What they can build on

Right now the only category the Falcons lead in is rebounding. Lenda Douanga is tall and they should just roll with it. They grabbed 49.71 rebounds a game but are not among the top teams in generating points in the paint. It shows that there is some aspect of the game that they are successful at, even if it’s not a dominant success.

Building off their rebounding ability means trusting that their bigs will be there when they miss and trusting that they will be able to complete defensive sequences.

Adamson is also second when it comes to shot blocking, helped in many parts by the fact that Lenda Douanga is there to swat shots away. For everyone else it’s a testament of effort as the more athletic players like Adrian Manlapaz have to really use their athleticism to go up for blocks.

Knowing that they CAN change shots and they CAN block them completely should give them more confidence in running the press. Without having to over-rotate, the Falcons should be able to trust that even if they’re beaten, somebody will be there as a last line defender.

It’s a rebuilding year for Adamson, no doubt about it. The change of players means the development they have gained has been set back a few notches. But they can’t allow that to hold them back. With the young players on the roster, there’s much room to grow and the potential for rapid growth is present in them. Unlike ordinary rookies, the likes of Manlapaz, Sabandal and Fermin are talents that have been known to be able to put up good numbers, it’s just a matter of them learning to catch the wind under their wings.

Their focus should be on improving with each game in the second round and just vying for a shot at a Final Four appearance this year. Just get their foot through the door and give veterans Jerrick Ahanmisi, Jerom Lastimosa and yes, even Val Chauca a chance to hopefully pull off incredible upsets in the playoffs. Seven games to get it together.