John Cena is the personification of Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect. He is a good character on TV, and a genuinely good person outside. Women and children love and revere him. But outside those demographics, people hate John Cena with a passion. As soon as you hear his now meme-famous “My Time is Now” entrance music, he is booed mercilessly out of the building along with chants of JOHN CENA SUCKS. It’s not that he is not amazing. He is good, great even, but his style is basic. A sidewalk slam here, a little wave of his arm on your face there, a Five Knuckle Shuffle, Attitude Adjustment, STF, ding ding ding. What’s more, he wins all the time. LIKE ALL THE DAMN TIME. People are sick not of John, but because he is booked to win too much. It is inevitable. He buries crowd darlings like they’re nothing, but he is too nauseatingly clean-cut. JOHN CENA WINS. LIVE WITH IT.
In wrestling parlance, a heel is a bad guy who is perceived to be a no-good, dirty fighter who will do everything to win. And they win a lot. But you might be asking “Hey, this does not particularly describe John Cena.” and you would be right. But since he wins too much and people are sick of him, he is classified as one.
In the eyes of the crowd, he’s a heel, just like the Season 81 Ateneo Blue Eagles.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles are too good. Like John Cena, they employ a basic yet effective style. They play at a slow pace. There aren’t any fancy dribbling, poking for steals, or contested fadeaway threes. Just plain, simple, fundamental basketball. Even the way they build huge leads is boring. It is not a scoring fiesta over a short period of time, it is a steady stream of baskets delivered seemingly at a rhythm. It is so methodical that if you are just watching the action on the floor and not looking at the score, you would not know that the opponent is already down by 20. ATENEO WINS. LIVE WITH IT.
The word “boring” however is not a negative adjective against the Blue Eagles. For one, the Ateneo titos at the patron area with cardiovascular conditions thank them for not aggravating their illness. All jokes aside, Ateneo plays methodical, fundamental basketball. Their style is basic and safe, but very potent and effective. Think of a hybrid of the execution of the San Antonio Spurs, and the ball movement and “anyone can shoot” mentality of the Golden State Warriors.
Let us take a look at what makes this team so boring, but efficient.
This lineup is legitimately 16-deep. The Blue Eagle bench is skilled enough to start (or at least be a rotation player) in the other seven schools. Ange Kouame and Thirdy Ravena are genetic marvels that are monsters on both ends of the floor. Raffy Verano and Matt Nieto are great position players honed by sharpening their skills through countless hours of training. Anton Asistio is a long range sniper and a pesky defender. Isaac Go is a big man with a deep range and a level head. Jolo Mendoza, SJ Belangel Adrian Wong, and Tyler Tio are all bonafide scorers that have that Microwave badge from NBA2K. Mike Nieto, Aaron Black, and Gian Mamuyac are all good defenders with a zest of scoring when needed. William Navarro, Matthew Daves, and BJ Andrade are intriguing prospects with good careers ahead of them. The scary thing is, you will think thrice about cutting any one of them to make way for the slew of talent coming in from the Team B program and the high school ranks.
Of course, all that talent did not start out to be that way. Kouame was a tall player that was way too raw. Thirdy was all too worried about stepping out of the shadow cast by his father and brother. Asistio was relegated to Team B and almost quit playing basketball. Enter Anthony “Tab” Baldwin. He has travelled far and wide gaining coaching experience, even leading the New Zealand Tall Blacks to the Olympics. He did not have a set system and fit his players into it, he broke the glass ceiling of these student-athletes and devised a system that best suits the material he has. The American tactician has created a system that highlights player strengths and hides the weaknesses. Despite the improvement of the Ateneo Blue Eagles, you can still argue that a team like La Salle has better talents. But how does this team manage to decimate other teams? It all boils down to team play and execution.
The greatest weapon of the Blue Eagles is not Ange Kouame. It isn’t even Thirdy Ravena. It’s the synergy of the five players on the court at any given time.
On offense, we can see how flexible Coach Tab’s scheme is. Last season, Ateneo relied on dribble handoffs a lot because Chibueze Ikeh and Vince Tolentino are strong bodies with good offensive recognition. This season, the play is orchestrated by the point guards. They make a few dribbles and screens automatically come. From there, the point guard has the option to go to the mismatch if defenders switch after the pick, or score themselves when their primary defenders slide up or down the screen. They have the option to finish the play, kick to the open man outside, or reward the screener when he rolls or pops. If the first shot misses, the big men work box out and they get the rebound. The ball moves around until they find the best possible shot. The thing to note here is that you cannot leave anyone open, as every player on the floor has a license to shoot. This produced 78.8 points per game (second) with a league-leading 102.48 ORTG, 47.1 rebounds (first), 15.1 assists (second), and 15.4 second chance points (second).
On defense, the Blue Eagles defend the space instead of players. This means that Ateneo dicates how the offense of the opposing team would go by disrupting the flow. They control you. They focus on the space you can operate within, rather than reacting against whatever an offense throws against them. Even if you blow by your primary defender, a help defender is in your face almost at an instant. The rim protector awaits you if you manage to drive to the hole. Ateneo is also very disciplined on defense. Shuffling feet, not gambling on steals, and switching make them truly dominant. The numbers back it up, as Ateneo ranks first in points allowed (61.9), defensive rating (80.46), turnovers forced (18.9), and second least in fouls given (17.1).
Let us take a look at how this team stacks up against the gold standard of dominance in recent years, the five-peat champion Ateneo Blue Eagles under coach Norman Black.
The five-peat Blue Eagles were rooted on defense, as it relied on man-to-man and passing lane coverage. Players like Eric Salamat and Kiefer Ravena would pressure the ballhandlers and look for an opening to poke the ball away. This season’s Blue Eagles defend space instead of players, and make it hard to initiate offense. They gamble less, defending with their feet instead of their hands. They simply stay in front of their man, standing in between the offensive player and the rim.
On offense, the five-peat teams like to run the ball, push the pace, and get easy baskets. It’s the mentality of “it’s easier to score when the defender is not yet there” that prevails. Because of the on-ball pressure and the ensuing steal, the Blue Eagles would run roughshod on their opponents. Their halfcourt shots are good as well, with the post, midrange and deep ball covered. The season 81 Blue Eagles rely heavily on halfcourt sets. With one of the slowest paces in the league, the Blue Eagles take their time in setting their offense by employing handoffs and ball screens. Crisp passing breaks down the opposing defense, and no one knows who will take the shot until Ateneo takes it.
Talent-wise, it can be argued that the five-peat champions have the advantage. After all, the smorgasbord of Juniors and eventual Seniors MVPs are testament to that. System-wise, the current defending champions run away with it, no questions asked. The level of discipline and execution is unparalleled, and it shows in the games. It is safe to say that the Season 81 Blue Eagles can assert their dominance when facing a full-force Five-peat champion in their prime.
EXCITING START, BORING FINISH
Here are some games that started out as exciting, but the Ateneo has managed to blow wide open.
1. ATENEO VS UP, SECOND ROUND
The second round meeting between the Finals protagonists was a game of runs. Well, unti the third quarter it is. The Blue Eagles were leading 35-29 at the start of the third quarter and was playing catch-up for most of it. The Fighting Maroons tied the game with 2:01 left, but Ateneo uncorked a 6-0 run to end the quarter. Stifling defense and methodical offense was punctuated by a Thirdy Ravena jam off the break, with the lead ballooning to 15, 75-60 with 1:53 left. The Blue Eagles end the game with a 17 point advantage, 80-63.
2. ATENEO VS ADU, SECOND ROUND
This was a high-stakes game, as the solo first seed was up for grabs. A combination of defense and shots not falling knotted the score at nine all at the end of the first quarter. Tyler Tio breaks the deadlock with a free throw at 8:07, but Adamson took the lead 11-10 with 5:45 left. Ateneo regained the lead once more with free throws, 12-11, a minute after.The Blue Eagles went on a tear and ended the half 26-17. Ateneo opened the floodgates in the third quarter, blitzing the Soaring Falcons with a 15-4 run to lead 41-21 with 5:41 left in the quarter. Ateneo would not let up and coast to a 62-48 victory. Even at low-scoring ballgames, Ateneo found a way to win big.
3. ATENEO VS DLSU, SECOND ROUND
With the Final Four spot on lock, Ateneo faced their fierce rivals with the motivation of securing the twice-to-beat advantage. The Green Archers are looking at the return of Taane Samuel to be a catalyst to sustain their scorching second round run. Tab Baldwin tinkered with his usual rotations, opting to start Adrian Wong and keep Thirdy Ravena off the bench. Two early fouls on Ange Kouame made Ateneo’s lives harder, as Will Navarro had to work as a makeshift center to defend Justine Baltazar. This would prove to be effective as the Blue Eagles tied the game at 35-all in the second quarter. The Blue Eagles would not look back as they easily win it 71-62 riding the broad shoulders of Thirdy Ravena.
THINGS TO LEARN
The way that Ateneo dismantles its opponents is boring. But is it safe to say that it is bad for the league? No, far from it actually.
The Ateneo Blue Eagles and Coach Tab Baldwin have set a standard not just for the UAAP, but for Philippine basketball. They have shown that one does not to fill the roster to the brim with supreme talent. Take some cornerstones, add in a few rotation players, then leave space for role players.
Put these players in a good system and the team will thrive. The Blue Eagles and coach Tab have also redefined what a good system is; simple yet effective, disciplined yet chaotic, boring yet beautiful. This pushes the other schools to be good enough to beat them. It gives other programs a much-needed boost, and competitiveness will go back to normal.
This is the Ateneo Blue Eagles. The next man up is hustling even when the game is all but over. The team is loyal to the basics. They respect every opponent. So efficient and clean-cut it’s nauseating. Flying so high you can’t see them. This is the heel turn even John Cena would be proud of.