To call Carl Tamayo as the face of the NU Bullpups is far from a hot take. After the UAAP Season 81 Juniors Finals, the hype surrounding him was reborn in an instant. He had just won Finals MVP for the Bullpups, built on impressive averages of 14 points and 11 rebounds per game. These were numbers worthy of a player you could call a bluechip. Tamayo was certainly the type, as the general public began to hype him up as a match to Season 81 MVP Kai Sotto. Calling Carl as part of the Future of Philippine Basketball was deservingly being thrown around.
Fast forward to March, and we find ourselves in familiar territory once more. Tamayo was hailed as the Finals MVP of the recently concluded NBTC National Finals, as he put up 24 points and 18 rebounds against the LSGH Junior Blazers. One tweeter mentioned, “We’re gonna need this Carl Tamayo to form a three-big combo with Kai and AJ.” Focus was on Tamayo the individual, all for the sake of the national cause.
Framing the narrative in this way was understandable. We live in a basketball culture today obsessed with individual talent. Sotto is the gold standard, but Tamayo is considered as an elite prospect as well. Yet an underrated fact is often forgotten amidst this culture: Tamayo did not do this alone. He could not have done this alone, if not for the team he was in, the NU Bullpups.
The Bullpups have emerged as the ultimate inevitable today in the Philippine High School Basketball circuit. It started in UAAP Season 74 when they won the UAAP championship versus the Jerie Pingoy-led FEU Baby Tamaraws. One could have chalked it up as a down year for the field, with the Bullpups getting lucky with the number of veterans they had. But come Season 76, when NU beat the Thirdy Ravena-led Ateneo Blue Eaglets to win their second championship in three years, the doubt slowly evolved into wonder. Some even dared to ask: Are the NU Bullpups the best High School program in the UAAP?
This was a controversial question to ask back then in 2013. In the UAAP, Ateneo was still widely regarded as the gold standard in the Juniors Division. From their three-peat led by Kiefer Ravena to Thirdy and Mike Nieto giving the Blue Eagles back to back regular season MVP winners, Ateneo still had the strongest argument to call themselves as the best. They didn’t just have old, dusty banners in the Blue Eagle Gym to point to as proof. Their present was quite strong as well, especially when Coach Joe Silva led them to a championship once again in Season 77.
NU was having quite a run at that time, but the sample size was quite small compared to what Ateneo had done. A drop-off was expected sooner or later, it happens to even the best of programs.
After Ateneo’s three-peat in 2010, they didn’t even make it to the Finals the next two years. As mighty as the San Beda Cubs were during their epic seven-peat, they eventually hit a bump and have been trying to climb out of it since then. NU’s struggles during Season 77 looked like the beginning of the end for the program.
That was far from the case, as NU wound up winning the championship the next season, and in convincing fashion. They didn’t slow down the year after, as they made the Finals once again. Then again. Come Season 81, as they laid waste to the Adamson Baby Falcons, they had booked a ticket to the biggest stage once more. At that moment, it felt inevitable. But once you took a step back, you suddenly realize: the NU Bullpups had just made their EIGHTH STRAIGHT Finals appearance. This was a special run, and quite frankly, something that had been taken for granted.
On one hand, you could understand why people weren’t particularly amazed at what NU had just achieved at the moment. The program has rarely had that oomph to them, the type which separates a team from being must watch and worthy of skipping out on. The Bullpups were inevitable. For effect, some might even call them boring. There was a reason for this.
More often than not, what draws the fan from watching High School basketball — or even basketball in general — is mesmerizing individual talent. Carl Tamayo is being pushed because that’s what we love to do. Glorifying individuals in a team sport was the norm, for better or for worse.
The Bullpups, while talented, rarely had prospects which you could characterize as unique. They’ve never had the best of the best throughout this run. Season 74 and 75 were Jerie Pingoy’s show. Season 76 was Thirdy Ravena. Season 77 was led by a group, Jolo Mendoza and the Nietos, but this is quite a rare case. People had all their eyes on Aljun Melecio come Season 78. On Season 79, it was Juan Gomez de Liano. Finally, from Season 80 up to the present, it is Kai Sotto.
Over the span of eight years, five Blue Eaglets, one Baby Tamaraw, one Junior Archer, and one Junior Maroon have captured most of the hearts of the adoring public. Not one Bullpup, thus the lack of fanfare. Which then leads us back to the question that was asked after Season 76: Are the NU Bullpups the best High School program in the UAAP?
If we used the criteria before, that wouldn’t be the case. The easy answer was the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, as they still had decent present success, while always boasting of the best of the best.
But that was before. If you answered the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, you’d be slapped like crazy by the most passionate of High School basketball fans. The only answer was the NU Bullpups. Eight straight Finals appearances. That should have been the end of the story, as the Blue Eaglets have only made half of the Finals NU had. It doesn’t stop there though.
While not having the best of the best individual, NU has the most talented players in the league in terms of sheer quantity. That’s players with an s, plural. Whatever they lack in one big oomph, they make up for with a chock full of glowing prospects.
Tamayo’s received most of the attention when discussing NU, but the rest of their core in Gerry Abadiano, Terrence Fortea, and Kevin Quiambao are all deserving of love as well. These four prospects of NU, you wouldn’t choose over a Kai Sotto. But Carl, Gerry, Terrence, and Kevin are all REALLY GOOD players. While they don’t have the best player, the Bullpups have the best players. There’s a difference. It’s that difference which separates the championship teams from those who merely finish second.
Don’t take that previous statement as an insult to the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, they’re a still a really good program. But even Ateneo coach Reggie Varilla isn’t afraid to admit the greatness of the NU Bullpups today. The level of talent from top to bottom is mesmerizing to look at. It’s not easy to look at since we’re so used to simply taking note of individuals, but when you get to digest the depth these NU teams have, you start to gain an appreciation of how special this program has been over these last eight years.
Once again, it’s bound to stop right? Tamayo, Abadiano, and Quiambao will all head to the college level after Season 82. This is the most amount of talent they’re set to lose ever since Season 76. The end should be near, right?
It’s far from the case. “With a program like NU, for them to go to the Finals eight straight seasons, it’s about recruitment,” said former Blue Eaglets coach and current UE Red Warriors coach Joe Silva. “Their ability to reload makes them dangerous every year.”
Other than simply reloading, how they develop talent has also been as important. During that slight bump in Season 77, Justine Baltazar was starting to come to his own before breaking out the next year. In Season 80, Terrence Fortea was learning the ropes before hitting daggers left and right in Season 81. We always focus on the stars, but in the background are prospects who are being developed for the future. NU’s the best when it comes to doing that right now in the High School level, and it isn’t even close.
The question should no longer be if NU’s the best in the UAAP. What we should now pose is: Are the NU Bullpups the best High School program in the Philippines?
Today, we have our eyes on Carl Tamayo as he holds the Finals MVP award after the NBTC tournament. But what isn’t being talked about enough, is how the NU Bullpups have become the first team to win back to back championships in the NBTC tournament.
It’s been raining championships for National University ever since Season 74. From the PCABL, to the PSSBC, to the UAAP, and now, the NBTC. Eight straight Finals in their mother league, with four titles throughout that run. What the Bullpups are doing is special. Lack of oomph and best of the best individual talent be damned, they are undoubtedly the best Philippine High School basketball has to offer today.