By Gio Gloria
Contrary to the individualistic flair of sports, dynasties are made through a series of calculated and shrewd moves that anoint you as the hero or label you a villain. The Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 90s wasn’t just Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson; the personnel moves to get the likes Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, and John Paxson allowed the Bulls to lord over the 90s (Yes even during MJ’s retirement the Bulls made the playoffs!). In the PBA, the San Miguel Beermen have constantly reloaded around their core, with their latest acquisition in Terrence Romeo earning Finals MVP honors in the recently concluded PBA Commissioner’s Cup.
In the same way dynasties are built with a series of chess moves, so to are they dismantled by decisions that although are well-meant, turn out to be disastrous. The 2004 Los Angeles Lakers signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton and though the signings were initially hailed as savvy moves to bolster their roster, injuries, off-court issues, and the overall lack of team cohesion doomed the squad when they faced a very beatable Detroit Pistons in the finals. Mo Tautuaa and Romeo were supposed to be the gamechangers for TNT KaTropa, but it’s been four years since the premier squad of the MVP group won a PBA title (San Miguel has won seven titles during that span).
The DLSU Green Archers, a team that has won nine championships since entering the UAAP in 1986, has always been a perennial contender to the point that a season of not being in the finals, much less the Final Four, can be grounds for dismissal for any coach, regardless if they’ve won a championship for the school or risked offending the league fits gods.
This decade has been a mixed bag for the Green-and-White as they have experienced the highest of highs and (by their reasonably high standards) lowest of lows. If things worked out, DLSU could have had a five-peat that could’ve been up there with the Ateneo Blue Eagles (a team, which *gulp* have had their own savvy moves to keep their run alive). So here’s a quick look back at what the past six years have been for La Salle.
2013 – The end of the title drought
2012 was a year of adjustment as a heralded recruiting class led by Jeron Teng should have properly acclimated themselves to college basketball with a UAAP season under their belt. The team’s performance in the FilOil preseason Cup was promising, as the emergence of Jason Perkins and young guns Kib Montalbo, Robert Bolick, and Matt Salem meant that this team would be deeper than the previous year.
However, the sudden departure of head coach Gee Abanilla and the promotion of Juno Sauler to head coach with barely three weeks to go before UAAP Season 76 made some wonder whether the team would be able to put it together in time.
Results were mixed at best when the first round of UAAP Season 76 began as the Green Archers posted a 4-3 record halfway through the season. Wins over UP, Adamson, and five-time defending champion Ateneo were negated by losses to FEU, UE, UST, and NU.
After the extended break due to the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship, La Salle would go on a nine-game winning streak, including a virtual best-of-three Final Four matchup with the FEU Tamaraws that was known more for Romeo’s spit/sweat incident with Teng.
UST may have won the opening finals game, but it was evident that DLSU’s strategy of milking the post and kicking the ball out to their wings would be too much to handle. Aside from Teng’s improved post game, Van Opstal flipped the switch in the second half of Season 76, finally showing the potential placed on him the moment he stepped on campus. Although the finals of Season 76 was known as the time Aljon Mariano became the King Archer, it was Almond Vosotros who put the finishing touches in Game 3, culminating a season where he became the UAAP’s version of a flamethrower.
2014 – Belofied
Two things that defined the UAAP Season 77 Basketball Tournament: 1) Steady point guard is key and 2) Boy, did Belo really ball out in 2014.
LA Revilla’s decision to leave for the PBA would prove to be one of the few factors that played a part in DLSU’s failed back-to-back title bid. Revilla’s intangible skill was his knack for feeding Norbert Torres, Perkins, and van Opstal the right amount of touches to keep the defense guessing and ensure the big men were motivated at both ends of the floor.
Alas, it was Mac Belo’s dagger felt all the way in Taft Avenue that broke the collective hearts of the Lasallian community and exacted revenge from the Green Archers, who in the past two seasons were responsible for sending FEU packing. The pictures of a stunned Vosotros and Norbert Torres said it all, with the season starting with a bang, and ending with an unfortunate whimper.
2015 – Broken Dreams
Perhaps the ominous sign in UAAP Season 78 was the extension of Mbala’s residency after it was discovered that he played in a league not sanctioned by the UAAP.
2015 was a year that seemed to be a glimpse into DLSU’s future not considering Mbala. Andrei Caracut was leading a rookie class featuring fellow Gilas cadet Jollo Go, Larry Muyang, Lorenzo Navarro, and GBoy Gob. If the preseason was any indication, the team was set to be in the mix for the Final Four, as Caracut more often than not led the team and served as a complement to Jeron Teng.
Things were going well for Caracut and co., however, a sudden illness forced the former San Beda Red Cub to miss part of UAAP Season 78 and affect his play all throughout that year. Although he earned Rookie of the Year honors that season, the team was wildly inconsistent and at times seemed to be going through the motions.
The season finale was even more of a head scratcher, as DLSU bungled its final possessions (and a shot at the Final Four) even with FEU practically handing them the game knowing they had already clinched the second seed. Then-FEU head coach Nash Racela would platoon swap players, while La Salle kept its starters in, but it wasn’t enough for them.
Juno Sauler left after the season ended, and if you look back at the sentence featuring all the rookies (or google the roster from Season 78), you’d notice that only Caracut remains with La Salle to this day.
2016 – Flat out Mayhem
The waiting game was well worth it as Ben Mbala tore through the competition one life changing dunk after another. Although Aldin Ayo would be Teng’s third head coach in five years, the former Letran mentor (and San Beda tormentor) made Jeron add a mid-range shot to his arsenal, one he would use at will given the free space Mbala created with his presence.
In a nutshell. nothing that could stop the Mbala-Teng attack. Even with Jeron out for a few games due to ankle bone spurs, Mbala et al made mince meat out of the UAAP. Save for a second-round loss to Ateneo, the Green Archers embodied Hydra’s mantra: Cut off one head, two will appear in its place. If Mbala was doubled, Teng and Perkins would pick up the cudgels on offense via a variety of midrange moves and pick-and-roll action.
When the dust settled, Teng capped off his five-year career with another championship, and Mbala officially stamped his class as arguably the best foreign athlete the UAAP has ever had.
2017 – The one that slipped away
Having Mbala should have made this one a walk in the park. Instead DLSU played as if they were in the park.
Even without the reigning UAAP MVP, the Green Archers won their first three games with ease, a development that would bring a title to near certainty once Mbala made his return. Things really looked promising once the Kid from Cameroon came back, as his added shooting put him that supernova status that would make you wave the white flag.
Unfortunately, early losses to UP and Ateneo exposed the Green Archers tendency to rely on Mbala and the lack of a definite 2nd or perhaps A1 option that would at least take on Teng’s role. A perfect second round and a 82-75 defeat of Adamson in the Final Four may have calmed fears of a failed title bid, but the feeling that year was that the Green Archers were encountering a totally different Ateneo team compared to the previous season.
In the end, Tab Baldwin was able to solve the Ben Mbala riddle with a bevy of defensive schemes and thanks in large part to a huge shot from Isaac Go, Ateneo did the unthinkable: they beat Mbala.
A few months after Season 80 ended, Ayo would leave for the UST Growling Tigers and his deputy Louie Gonzales would be tasked to lead the Green Archers next season.
2018 – Almost is never enough
Gonzales was retained despite being part of the previous regime, as he was seen as the ice to Ayo’s fire and came off as a player’s coach that got through to his players. Even with a roster seeing huge turnover and reeling from a huge loss in the Mbala, there remained a glint of optimism for a shot at the Final Four.
Perhaps the underrated moment that defined Season 81 didn’t even happen in the UAAP itself. In the final minutes of a preseason game between La Salle and Ateneo, Taane Samuel, tasked with filling in the huge shoes of Mbala, was on the low block set to make his move against the Ateneo defense. Throughout the game, he was he showing finesse not often seen from a player his size, providing a presence that although not be Mbala-like, got the job done. Unfortunately, he suffered an ankle injury late in the game.
Although he had more than enough time to recover, Samuel again suffered another foot injury during the UAAP season opener against FEU, but this time it was a Jones fracture that sidelined him for a huge portion of the season. Gonzales later revealed that the former New Zealand youth team standout was still recovering from a stress fracture and he was taking his chances. Aside from Samuel, Montalbo suffered a fractured thumb in a win over UE, but he was able to come back two weeks ahead of the four-to-six week timetable.
Even with all the injuries, DLSU had nearly all the chances in the world to make it to the Final Four with big wins over Adamson and FEU, yet the team once again could not finish the job because of their forever-nemesis-with-Final-Four-implications in FEU. The Green Archers were actually one play away from making it to the postseason, but alas, sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce in one’s favor.
In the offseason, DLSU brought in Jermaine Byrd as an active consultant and Gonzales decided to move on to the head coaching job at Jose Rizal University.
For reference, Bolick, who left DLSU in 2015, completed a three-peat with San Beda that season, giving more reason for La Salle fans to wonder about their Final Four chances if he was still with the team.
2019 – ???
UAAP Season 82 presents a unique opportunity to start fresh and build on the future. The duo of Byrd and head coach Gian Nazario has been promising, considering the team has advanced to the finals of every preseason tournament it has played in, even winning the Araw ng Davao tournament last May.
DLSU’s first round performance has been cardiac to say the least, as losses to UE, FEU, and UP put the Green Archers at 3-4, which had them tied at fourth place with the Tamaraws and Soaring Falcons. Among the positives during the first half of the season have been the improving team chemistry and the active defense, with the latter sparking the run-and-gun style that makes them a dangerous team.
As of this posting, La Salle is at 4-4, which puts them half a game behind third-placer UST. Through eight games, DLSU has four players averaging at least nine points a game (Baltazar, Malonzo, Melecio, Caracut, and Serrano) and leads the league in rebounds and assists. Key for them moving forward will be to maximize possessions by consistently move the ball around, as their high assist numbers usually translate to wins. It also wouldn’t hurt to make more free throws, considering that their woes from the free throw line can be exploited and magnified during close games.
The future begins here (or wherever the reset button is)
Even with the early stumbles they’ve encountered, DLSU’s prospects for Season 82 and beyond look promising. However, La Salle’s tendency to change coaches and let players come and go like a revolving door has prevented them from achieving the same consistency that the programs of Ateneo, FEU, and to some extent, UST have. The habit of getting used to the various coaching systems may also affect player development as different principles may require different outcomes from players. This shuffling of roles prevented the likes of Bolick and Salem from completely establishing themselves in the team.
For a storied program littered with nine (11 if you count the two titles given to FEU due to technicalities) championships across four decades, it’s no surprise that the Lasallian community has always had that Final Four (and championship) or bust mentality. But if the team wants to succeed moving forward, taking a more long-term and patient approach will definitely be a direction in the right step. Heck, even Rome wasn’t built in a day.