After more than five years of dominating the UAAP scene, the Ateneo Blue Eagles tasted an early vacation last season. It was painful not only because of the thought that they can no longer defend their title but also because their elimination technically happened on the last game of the season. Their elimination actually happened earlier (that NU loss was a huge one) but that tiny bit of hope made the final nail in the coffin sting a little more than it usually would.
It was a year of turmoil. Between the injuries and the drama (hello La Salle games!), last year was not how the Eagles wanted their title defense to happen. And so, this year is going to be all about redemption and reclaiming the glory that once was.
This redemption story is filled with a ton of question marks, not exactly ideal for redemption. Between the rookies (Ateneo will field anywhere between 3 to 5 of ’em) and the second straight season that the Eagles will field a starting 5 remarkably different from the year prior (with Ravena and maybe Newsome as the only holdovers). It’s going to be a tough ride for the Blue and White.
Roster and Strengths
For the second straight year, the Eagles are going to be a perimeter-heavy team, uncharacteristic for a team that once featured the likes of Greg Slaughter, Nonoy Baclao, Rabeh Al-Hussaini, Ford Arao and Rich Alvarez, four of which became top picks in the PBA.
This team’s talent is heavy on guards that operate more comfortably from the outside. There’s their marquee guard Kiefer Ravena (more on him later), their do-it-all forward Chris Newsome, returning Nico Elorde and Von Pessumal. But the main guy we want to focus on is, of course, the man himself – Ravena.
Kiefer Ravena entered last season with a massive injury after having an impressive FilOil tourney.
As it turns out, Ravena was on the way to becoming the marquee guard in the league.
You know him but just to refresh your memory (in case you forgot because of last year’s debacle): His combination of offensive rating and usage rates are among the best in the league in all two seasons prior to the last. He’s a combo guard that is primarily a scorer but can also distribute well (attested by an assist rate that’s around 20 percent). He is more comfortable working ball screens. He likes using those said screens (instead of using them only as decoys) and is very balanced in his attacks – he mixes pull up jumpers with drives to the rim. He finishes mostly with his right hand (which makes his drives to the left easy to defend). He’s still not as good (I think) as a post-up threat as I think he should be and I don’t think he’ll ever become a game-changing presence there but he does have it. Where he impresses is in transition – he likes to leak out early and get easy baskets in transition and/or because he gets a lot of steals (whether it’s an on-ball or off-ball type), he can become a one-man fast break.
His rebounding is nothing to write home about but his defense is another thing. When he wants to, Kiefer can dial in and become a defensive stopper. He doesn’t do it all that often (probably because he’s reserving some of his energy) but when he does, he can generate a lot of steals, whether he makes the actual steal or not and whether it’s the on-ball type or of the off-ball variety (which in turn fuels his excellent transition game) and can lockdown his man tight. He slacked a bit last season (more than he usually did) but we’ll give him a pass because of the injury.
One giant reason (outside of his injury) why his offensive numbers plummeted to the numbers they were – he couldn’t leak out as much as he wanted to because his team needed help finishing defensive possessions with rebounds (as seen by his sharp increase in DRB%). Combine that with the fact that he didn’t have as much lift as he used to and his attempt at becoming a 3-point threat failed and you can see how his offensive rating dropped to the low 80s.
According to Kiefer himself, he’s healthy and ready to “bounce back” (I hope I’m not reading too much into a single tweet lol).
A year after my injury. Still thanking The Lord for everything. Time to bounce back.
— Kiefer Ravena (@kieferravena) July 6, 2014
Back to help him is jack-of-all-trade swingman/forward/hybrid Chris Newsome. He combined an efficient offensive attack (buoyed by his rim attacks, highlight film worthy finishes and his ability to draw fouls) and a suffocating defense that covered all types of players (from Roi Sumang, to Bobby Ray Parks to Jason Perkins). He’s also a strong rebounder (7/19/13 splits) and a sneaky good passer especially from the high post (18.6 percent AST%).
His high school classmate Von Pessumal who’s one half of the 3&D swings that are becoming popular by the season (he shot 28 percent last season on 5.3 3-point attempts per 30). His lack of size gives him problems against big wings, his foot speed and length can’t help cover small wings and he missed out on more than a fair share of his rotations. He tries, which is already half the battle. But trying is nothing if it can’t become something. This is to say Pessumal has a long way to go to become the 3&D guy I thought he was.
Lastly, Nico Elorde now holds the starting spot firmly in his hands. He wasn’t great at finishing shots near the rim. But he had a penchant for drawing fouls (5.5 free throw attempts per 30) and was an excellent shooter (30.3 percent on 3.9 attempts per 30). He was one of Ateneo’s more persistent defenders, usually taking the opposing team’s ball handler full court and harassing him all the way (with or without the ball). He’s particularly good at ball denials, at multiple times in the season being switched onto a bigger defender (Teng bros, Parks, Cruz) and holding his own against them in the post with excellent coverage when he fronts the post. He had to share time last year with Tiongson (goodbye ol’ friend!). This year, it’s all on him and I think he’ll perform admirably.
[Update: According to my sources (see what I did there?), Elorde will not be a part of the Eagles’ opening day starting five. The projected starting five is K. Ravena, Pessumal, Newsome, A. Tolentino and Babilonia. Yes, KEEFEE will play the role of “point guard”, if that matters to you. Carry on.]
There are a couple more returning players like Gwynne Capacio, Vince Tolentino, Anton Assistio and Isaac Lim not to mention some players returning from season-ending injuries last year (Babilonia, Porter) and the said rookies (Apacible, Doliguez, Javelosa, Ravena, Tolentino) plus a transferee (Gotladera) and a player who was from Ateneo’s Team B (Siarot).
Of the rookies, Thirdy Ravena (younger sibling of Kiefer, Bong Ravena clone) and Red Lion top recruit Arvin Tolentino are the ones to watch. Thirdy is a more athletic, less methodical version of Kiefer. He has a better post game than Kiefer coming out of high school but a less reliable jumper.
Arvin Tolentino is billed as a multi-faceted offensive big with some defensive issues. I don’t know much about him (since I never really watched a ton of NCAA games) and I’m going off what people say about him. I won’t pass judgement on him because of this but I am excited at the prospect of his offensive game.
From the roster enumerated above, the biggest weakness for the Eagles – like last – is their big man rotation. If last year was a mess, wait until this year. Here are the names of bigs that Ateneo will employ for Season 77: Babilonia (returning from a shoulder injury), Porter (returning from a knee injury), Gotladera (transferred from La Salle), Vince Tolentino, Arvin Tolentino (rookie) and John Apacible (rookie).
We can add Chris Newsome and Gwynne Capacio there if we have to (as Coach Bo likes to use them, on occasion, as small-ball “power forwards”, or at least close to it), but that group isn’t really setting anything on fire.
Coach Bo, despite all these limitations, was able to concoct a Top 4 defensive team out of that group. It was a group effort trying to hide this weakness. They were still able to allow teams to miss their fair share of shots near the rim (first in field goal percentage allowed near the rim at 46.3 percent). They traded shots from 3-point land (where they allowed teams to shoot 31.3 percent of their shots) for covering the paint with more defenders. They had trouble with teams who can either shoot from deep (NU and FEU last year) and/or had a physical inside presence (DLSU, NU, UST).
I’ll wager that it’ll be the same case this year. The key difference will be our offense won’t be below average (as it was last year, scoring just 89 points per 100). This is — as it was last year as well — dependent on Kiefer Ravena and Co. keeping their health intact (for the most part).
I’ll place the X-Factor on Nico Elorde and on Lady Luck. If the Eagles can stay healthy and Elorde performs as well as I think he can (working as a safety valve from deep and as a one-man press and great team defender), then Ateneo will be in it until the end. Whether they get to the end and finish the season on top is anyone’s guess. But the point is, Ateneo’s good enough to compete and maybe get to .500 if Kiefer and Newsome play enough minutes this season. Whether they get to the coveted 9~10 wins and a twice-to-beat advantage is (personally) dependent on Elorde’s play.
Last season, Ateneo finished with a 7-7 record and a +2.4 point differential (fifth in the league behind the Final Four teams). They were really the team on the outside looking in — good enough that they could have competed with any of those four teams, not lucky enough to get in.
The same can be said this season. Ateneo will definitely be in the upper half of the league’s teams. Where they’ll place will be dependent on luck (breaks of the game), health and of course, how their players produce (especially for Kiefer Ravena, Chris Newsome and Nico Elorde).
Best of times, I can see this team getting into that 10~11 win section and getting a twice-to-beat advantage.
Worst case scenario (Kiefer is never the same, Elorde disappoints, Newsome gets injured at some point in the season, et al), a season in the 4~5 win column is possible.