The National University Bulldogs are your UAAP Season 77 champs. The last time the words “National University Bulldogs” and “UAAP champs” were used together in a sentence (and not the sentence “The National University Bulldogs are NOT your UAAP champs” or any other variant) was 1955.

To put that year into perspective:

  • Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both born in 1955. One is now dead (RIP) and the other is a philanthropist who’s no longer directly involved with the company he built as a young adult.
  • Albert Einstein – one of the most famous and renowned theoretical physicist in the history of mankind – died in 1955. So did Alexander Fleming, Nobel Prize winner and the scientist responsible for the discovery of penicillin.
  • Ramon Magsaysay was still the President of the Republic of the Philippines.
  • The PHP-USD exchange rate hovered around 2 pesos per dollar.

It’s been a long time coming. From 1987 to 2010 (spanning 23 years), the Bulldogs had one season finish higher than 6th – in 2001-02, when they finished 4th. It’s been that bad of a quarter century for the Bulldogs. But since 2011, when the NU Bulldogs truly rebuilt their basketball program, they’ve gone on to 3 Final Four appearances and one elusive championship.

Their rebuilding project was clear: they wanted to build a winning culture grounded on defense. It was a sound strategy. Although winning a championship isn’t as cut and dry as offense and defense, it’s almost a universal truth at this point that defensive oriented teams go deeper, are more consistent and have a better chance at winning a ‘ship than their offensive oriented counterparts.

Since 2011, the Bulldogs have finished no worse than 3rd in defensive rating. It was a continuous and long term evolution — +2.4 back in Season 74, +3.5 in Season 75, +5.6 in Season 76 and of course, +8.1 in Season 77 (all are points per 100 above league average). Eric Altamirano’s work of instilling discipline and grit into the NU basketball program culminated into a championship, beating UE to get a seat into the Final Four, beating Ateneo and FEU twice (both were the complete opposite of what defines NU as a team).

A big part of that was Coach E’s system – dropping low, packing the paint and crisp help defense has allowed NU to become one of the best interior defending teams. It helps that they found solid recruits in Mbe, Aroga, Rosario and Parks (“solid” recruit /s) to make this vision a reality.

In the Finals, the Bulldogs allowed just 81.1 points per 100 – not an improvement over their excellent season numbers but impressive if you consider the fact that FEU was the 3rd best offense. In the playoffs (6 games) they allowed just 79.6 points per 100 – against 3 top 4 offensive teams. NU had a legitimate claim to a “title-worthy defense”.

And despite the heaping of praise on Alolino (who, BTW had a pretty “meh” playoff run), Alejandro (deservedly so, staking his claim as possibly the next guy for NU) and Rosario’s clutch plays, it was the defensive plays that mattered most.

Nobody wrote excessively about how Javelona and Khobuntin kept the league’s MVP, face-of-the-league, Blue Mamba, *insert hyperbolic title here* Kiefer Ravena to practically average (14.8 PER) in two meetings. That right there was game, set and match for Ateneo. Aroga’s game sealing block on the league MVP was relegated as a foot note on a game recap or a minor point on a piece instead of becoming an entire full blown article/s about Aroga’s defensive excellence.

What about Rosario (and again) Khobuntin’s work as the defensive ace who locked down scoring maestro and offensive fulcrum Mac Belo? After registering an eFG of ~54 percent on a usage rate of ~28 percent (best in the league), Belo could barely hit 30 percent of his shots. Clearly, Belo isn’t the only one who can touch Belo. NU manhandled him to oblivion. His mighty sidekick Mike Tolomia didn’t fare any better – his eFG was 24.1 percent over three games. YIKES.

These are the things that really helped NU win their first title in over half a century. It was Javelona’s footwork and bulldog mentality (pun intended), Khobuntin’s in-yo-face-m******** defense and occasional sparkplug work on offense, Aroga’s swarming defense and his (and Betayene’s) league leading 7.9 and 7.3 percent block rate. It was Rosario balancing everything out as that steady presence in the middle, in the perimeter, or anywhere. It was NU finally becoming a more-than-elite defensive team. It was NU finally discovering their identity after decades of not knowing who they wanted to be.

Knowing who you are and who you want to be – that’s the first step to becoming better. Being brutally honest, NU was terrible before. I always knew them as “that other loser team that nobody knows”.

Knowing how to become who you want to be – that’s the second step. Although a lot of people think it’s getting there that’s hard, it’s actually harder to take step one; the proverbial “speed bump”. Once that’s done, everything else becomes easier so long as you keep coming back. And NU kept coming back. Year after year, they came back a better team. More importantly, they became a better defensive team. More impressively, they became a better team even without BRP, a key defensive linchpin. That speaks volumes of NU’s burgeoning culture of being a defensive team.

The National University Bulldogs are your UAAP Season 77 champs. It no longer sounds as ridiculous at it once did. Not after the 800 words above.

Writers tend to exaggerate details to bring a certain oomph and vibrancy to their stories (Guilty as charged). But I am as much a writer as a realist. I don’t easily bandwagon. I don’t easily make proclamations. I don’t jump to conclusions. There’s a reason I rely on statistics – because they bring a certain reality our eyes could probably never see. So when I say what I’m about to say, do know that it was not done out of emotion or out of the ecstasy of what NU, the school, has accomplished.

They deserve this championship.

They did. I truly believe they did and it would be a travesty if they didn’t. All of this is from my admiration with the program – a promising program built on defense (YAY!), from of an underdog (YAY!) and for the beauty of watching these student-athletes compete (YAY!). It has nothing to do with NU as a school or with their benefactor/s. This is basketball the way I’d want it to be played if I were a coach/manager/player – grind it out, defensive and team-oriented. That’s something that’s easier said than done.

What’s next for the Bulldogs?

The next thing for the Bulldogs is to maintain this culture. With Rosario and the professional league looming and other teams (hello La Salle!) reloading and getting better on paper, maintaining this culture is the grind. Step one (being brutally honest about who you are and what you want to be) is the “grit” where you just clench your teeth, stiffen your shoulders and arms and brace yourself (and your ego) for the hit.

Step two (knowing how to become who you want to be) is the “and” – that middle ground where you’re consistently figuring out what to say next (or figuring out how to become who you want to be).

Step three is maintaining who you’ve become. It is the “grind” in “grit and grind”. This is the hardest part. The Grind is what separates great athletes from legendary ones. It is what separates great teams from legendary ones. It is what separates great programs from legendary ones.

For NU, this is what’s next.

Congratulations to the National University Bulldogs, your UAAP Season 77 Champs.