The Ateneo Blue Eagles failed to make it to the finals in Season 77 but it was still considered a year of exceeding expectations. They surprised everyone, including the blue and white faithfuls, when they managed to end the eliminations on top of the standings. The eventual champions NU Bulldogs, however, spoiled the party and proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Blue Eagles, not only in the Final Four but throughout the season.

This year will not be any different in terms of introducing a lot of new faces in the roster, yet the expectations are definitely higher. Prized recruits, including those affected by the controversial residency rule, will finally get the opportunity to show what they can offer to the team. More importantly, all eyes will be on Kiefer Ravena as he attempts to lead his alma mater to another championship crown which, as he declared, is the only fitting way to end his collegiate career.

Photo Credit: Roy Afable, SLAM Philippines

Photo Credit: Roy Afable, SLAM Philippines

Holdovers Additions

John Apacible

Aaron Black

Gboy Babilonia

Hubert Cani

Gwyne Capacio

Ikeh Chibueze

Ponso Gotladera

Isaac Go

Von Pessumal

Matt Nieto

Kiefer Ravena

Mike Nieto

Arvin Tolentino

Jerie Pingoy

Vince Tolentino

Adrian Wong

Ateneo lost two of their limited key pieces from Season 77 – versatile forward Chris Newsome (13.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists) and elite point guard Nico Elorde (7.9 points, 3.7 assists). I’m not too worried that half of the current roster are newcomers because they’re a talented bunch who have the potential to immediately contribute and make an impact. Compared to last year, they are equipped with a deeper bench and taller frontline.

The lack of big men has been a persistent concern in the Blue Eagles’ post-championship era. This batch hopes to address this with the acquisition of Nigerian Ikeh Chibueze and Xavier School star Isaac Go. They will ease the workload of Ponso Gotladera, Gboy Babilonia, and John Apacible in the paint. What remains to be seen is if the added height will translate to improved rebounding and better rim protection.

As mentioned, the team is certainly not lacking in individual talent. They have Jerie Pingoy and Hubert Cani who are both raring to play after overcoming all the residency hullabaloos. Cani was earlier ruled ineligible for the season, but thank goodness he was eventually given the go signal to suit up. This Pingoy-Cani backcourt tandem will be exciting to watch given their creativity and basketball IQ. Add the Nieto twins, Aaron Black, and Adrian Wong to the offensive fold, and voila… a variety of options! Kiefer resting longer than five minutes per game is now a possibility.

Ateneo was second best in outside shooting last year (40.1 percent from deep) and they are going to capitalize on this strength again. They will harp on their fluid ball movement (14.4 assists per game, 58 percent assist rate) and ability to space the floor to free up their shooters. They will also continue to use their speed to outrun, outsmart, and outscore their opponents.

Kiefer will remain the go-to guy, the clutch epitome, the team captain, and the King Eagle. He just had an awesome MVP season (21.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 29.3 PER) but I don’t think we’ve seen the best of the Phenom just yet. I believe he has some more tricks up his sleeve that will make him more difficult to stop. This is his last chance to bring back the crown to Loyola Heights, so everyone’s expecting him to be all out. Just like last season when he had Newsome, he’ll need a Pippen to his Jordan and a Bronn to his Tyrion. That’s where long-time teammate Von Pessumal will be instrumental. It’s up to the veterans to motivate the newbies and help them adjust quickly.

I’m predicting a top two finish and a repeat of their 11-3 record, though they can easily slide to third or fourth if they go back to their old habits of relaxing on the defensive end and going iso-Kiefer more often than necessary.