For the longest time, the University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons are entrenched at the lower echelon of UAAP basketball. Year after year, their campaign had been seasoned heavily with disappointments, heartbreaks, potentials unreached, and goals unfulfilled. Make no mistake about the team and the management, their efforts to come up with the desired results were there and not gone unnoticed. But the competition in UAAP has just gone way up in the recent times. Sadly, the Fighting Maroons have not managed to stay afloat. They tried but botched up when they recruited the likes of Mike Silungan, the “sweet-shooting” guy from Illinois who connected only 39 of his 194 three-point attempts (20.1%) in Seasons 74 and 75; and Alinko Mbah, the 6’8″ supposed enforcer from Nigeria who picked up more fouls than points and rebounds in his second and final year. A number of coaching changes (from Joe Lipa to Rey Madrid, and a bunch of guys in between) also yielded little significance in turning things around for them. Time will only tell if team manager Dan Palami can pull off the same thing with what he did in the Philippine football scene.
As it has been in the recent years, the theme of Fighting Maroons’ campaign for this season centers on redemption and aim for relevance. Season 78 presents yet another opportunity for UP to let go of their missteps in the past and begin again, hoping that they finally have what it takes to be relevant in a very competitive UAAP.
The Roster in A Nutshell
Who’s In, Who’s Out and Who’s Back?
Nine players from last season’s squad will be back on duty for Season 78. Leading the holdovers is team captain JR Gallarza, arguably the team’s best player in Season 77. Gallarza, who sported a net rating of +12 points per 100 possessions last year, emerged as a deadly marksman out of nowhere. After making only three triples in Seasons 75 and 76, he knocked down 29 of his 79 attempts (36.7%) from downtown in Season 77. Another key player coming back for the Fighting Maroons is sophomore point guard Diego Dario. With the guard rotation suddenly thinned out, he’ll be expected to gain more playing time. In his limited minutes last season, Dario was impressive and gave us a glimpse of a bright future for UP.
Mikee Reyes and Kyles Lao, two of UP’s best shot creators from last season, will not be suiting up this time. Reyes, who registered a Terrence Romeoesque usage rate of 34.3% last season but had an atrocious offensive rating of 74.1 per 100 (second worst among players with at least 20% usage rate and 10 minutes per game), was kicked out from the team. Lao, the former Rookie of the Year who had a disappointing second year, suffered an ACL injury early this year which will keep him out for the entire season.
Without the two guys in the mix, UP will be searching for other options on offense. Thankfully, two offensive-minded guys — Paul Desiderio and Jett Manuel, will be returning to the squad after their respective hiatuses. Both of them are capable scorers and should help the team right away.
The squad will feature five rookies, topbilled by 6’10” Cheick Kone from Burkina Faso. He’ll be providing the much-needed height and interior presence that the Fighting Maroons were deprived of last season. He’s athletic, quick on his feet but lanky that he somewhat resembles Moustapha Arafat of UE. Also making their debut on collegiate basketball are prized recruits Janjan Jaboneta and Pio Longa from Cebu, Noah Webb and Jerson Prado.
New Coach on the Block
It was widely thought that Joe Ward, an American trainer who was UP’s interim head coach, would take the helm from Rey Madrid. But with a rule by Basketball Coaches Association of the Philippines (BCAP) that discourages teams from hiring foreigners as head coaches, in accordance with the Labor Code, Ward was not able to secure the gig. Instead, it went to former PBA player Rensy Bajar, then UP’s assistant coach. In his interviews, Bajar has been consistently harping defense and discipline will be the team’s X-factor this season as he’ll be leading a squad that allowed league-worst 94.5 points per 100 possessions last season.
What Lies Ahead
If UP wants to make a significant stride this year, they’ll have to address their deficiencies on both sides of the court. Last season, the Fighting Maroons sported a net rating of -15.1 points per 100. Getting rid of the high-usage, low-efficiency Reyes, who’s more of a scorer than distributor, will pave way for Dario and Henry Asilum to run a more fluid offense for them. It also helps their cause that they have a number of players like Manuel, Desiderio, Longa and Dave Moralde who can create scoring opportunities on their own.
As for the frontline, the addition of Kone and Prado must serve them well. With Kone, they now have a legitimate center who will match up with the imposing big men of other teams and will secure the boards. Rebounding was a huge issue for the Fighting Maroons, given the lack of bigs on the squad. They only collected 42.3% of the available rebounds in 14 games last year. More frontcourt depth also allows Mark Juruena to slide down to 4-spot, which might be the most suitable position for him, given his size and his playmaking abilities.
Projected Record: 3-11
One thing is clear: this Fighting Maroons squad appears to be superior over the last season’s (but not on the same level the new badass logo of Fighting Maroons is over that infamous Datu Puti-like/Warrior logo). With the addition of guys like Kone and Prado, and the return of Manuel and Desiderio, they were able to fill in the most glaring holes that they had last season. This squad has some depth that UP does not have in recent memory, and that should suffice to make them a competitive team. Not a Final Four team yet, but they should make a huge leap from last season. These are interesting times for the Fighting Maroons.