Any season preview for Ateneo’s Season 79 campaign should start with the obvious: That its first post-Kiefer season kicks off amid an offseason of uncertainty and mystery. Sadly, that’s been the norm since the final year of the five-peat more than 4fourseasons ago (!!!). First, it was Kiefer’s injury, followed by a slew of departures that decimated the roster (Newsome, Tiongson, Buenafe). Then, just when you thought the program was finally getting back on its feet, another batch of departure (Ravena, Pessumal, Capacio, Gotladera) left the Eagles without a semblance of a steady roster. At least the last batch of graduates prior to this one had someone (and by someone I mean Kiefer) to pass the torch to. This time, it’s less clear, especially after what can only be described as an exodus.
The offseason started with the hiring of Coach Tab Baldwin, head coach of the National Team, as a “consultant” and ended with three top recruits — two of which had to endure the despised residency rule, leaving Katipunan. Gone are the trio of Arvin Tolentino, Hubert Cani, and Jerie Pingoy, along with Team B players who were set to finally debut, like CJ Perez, due to academics. That’s about a third of what was already a roster filled with questions.
It’s easy to dwell on this and claim gloom and despair. But the bigger — and more important — question is: what now?
The Ateneo team will feature a perimeter-heavy roster, headlined by returning contributors Adrian Wong, Aaron Black, and Matt Nieto. All three played a big role in their debut seasons.
|Ikeh, Chibueze||Porter, Kris||Ravena, Thirdy||Wong, Adrian||Nieto, Matt|
|Babilonia, Gideon||Tolentino, Vince||Nieto, Mike||Black, Aaron||Asistio, Anton||Ildefonso, Shaun|
|Go, Isaac||Escaler, Jme||Verano, Raffy||Mendoza, Jolo||White, Jawuan|
Matt Nieto proved to be a great stabilizer for the Eagles last season at point guard, while providing a solid defensive option against the Tolomias and the Alolinos of the UAAP. He’s pesky, heady, and steady. That allowed him to earn the starting spot ahead of Cani and Pingoy, and made him a personal favorite of both the fans and the coaching staff. He’s a private who follow orders, and isn’t afraid to get dirty. He was one of the better isolation defenders and had the highest net rating on the team, even ahead of Kiefer and Von. He still has room to improve, especially with his shot, something he’s done so much after practice, I’ve lost count of his percentages, although I can tell you he hates hitting less than 50 percent of his shots from all five spots of the 3-point line and mid-range.
Adrian Wong came into his own in the latter part of the season averaging more minutes, while becoming more efficient in all aspects. His jumper finally connected as it did during practice, and what was a jittery and nervous first round showing (forcing Coach Bo to bench him earlier) was replaced by a confident and aggressive second round. He attacked the basket more and was basically that off-the-bench scorer the Eagles badly needed last season.
|First Round (S78)||80.4||2.3||7.5||17.2||33.7||11.1|
|Second Round (S78)||105||7.7||18.8||18.2||64.1||37.8|
And in the only playoff game the Eagles had, Adrian came up big, tallying 17 points (75% eFG), helping the Eagles keep pace with the Tamaraws. If not for a missed layup, we’d all be crowning Adrian as the “King Eagle”. Honestly, I’ve had enough about the idea of a “King Eagle” and no matter how last season ended, Adrian’s trajectory is on the up-swing, which bodes well for the Eagles.
Lastly, Aaron Black might have played spotty minutes, playing 20 one game, then two the next, but he was a personal favorite for me — going out relentless and unafraid. Those are qualities I think he inherited from his father, which allowed him to score rebounding splits of 9.4/17.4/13.5 — numbers closer to a forward than a guard. But AB, as he’s fondly called, is more than that. He’s ambidextrous, with a nice change of pace dribble employing his right hand, that he likes to transition into a floater. The spotty minutes might not have helped, but coming into his second season with the Eagles, barring any unforeseen obstacles, AB should be a consistent contributor for the Eagles this season.
Beyond those three, the Eagles will have Chibueze Ikeh back, a monster rebounder who had the second best defensive on/off split on the team and ranked at the top in the league. I haven’t watched a lot of him after the season so I don’t know how much he’s improved since, but knowing where he started, how hard he works (he ALWAYS puts in extra work after practice. ALWAYS) and how far he’s gone, it wouldn’t surprise me if Ikeh becomes the MIP (most impactful player) on this team. He won’t score a lot, but he’ll grab a lot of rebounds and he’ll deter a lot of shots inside. If he’s learned how to control his jump-happy reflexes (which was the primary cause of his foul troubles), he’ll be a big nuisance to the UAAP — even to the vaunted DLSU rotation.
Lastly on the list of mentions is of course, Thirdy Ravena. Now, we can’t say much of anything about him. He didn’t play last season. His rookie season was underwhelming, even without the lofty standards placed on him by the presence of his brother. GBoy Babilonia is also back, a smart veteran presence who keeps everyone in line and makes sure everyone understands the game plan, even if he’s a soft-spoken giant.
The rest of the roster.
It’s hard to call them weaknesses considering we don’t know much about them, which is the problem.
Mike Nieto (Matt’s twin brother), Jme Escaler, Shaun Ildefonso (Danny I’s oldest son), Anton Asistio, Jolo Mendoza, Raffy Verano, Jawuan White, Vince Tolentino, Kris Porter, and Isaac Go are all big question marks because all of them have either:
- not played enough minutes in a UAAP season (Nieto, Tolentino, and Go)
- have played in a UAAP season but who’ve spent time away, so we don’t know how they’ve changed (Porter, Asistio)
- have not yet played in a UAAP season.
Outside of the question marks surrounding the roster, the team’s ability to defend will be important. Although they fared well last season (85.9 DRTG, 4th), it was well short of the target the team wanted to have (80). The offense will be fine. I truly believe that. The coaching staff, one that I worked close with, is smart enough to know who to employ at what time and when. They were able to put together an offense that ranked 3rd overall (90.4), and one that improved steadily as the season progressed. Even without Kiefer, the coaching staff is meticulous and detailed, two qualities you want in a coaching staff that’s tasked with preparing young players. That will all be helped by the addition of Coach Tab Baldwin.
It’s on the defensive end where the Eagles have to make improvements. It’s always been the thorn that the Eagles have been unable to fix since the giants (Slaughter being the last one) left town. It’s the thing that kept the Eagles from truly competing in the past two seasons and it’ll be the thing that’ll keep on stopping them from being true contenders. This is not about scheme — the team (players, coaching staff) work hard before each game and they have sound defensive tactics. But game time is different. You can spend 30+ hours practicing a particular scheme, but sometimes, some things just don’t go your way. Sometimes, luck plays a big role (with the season being an intense and fast-paced 14 games). The coaching staff will chip at the edges and the players will have to grind harder and focus harder.
Specifically, the Eagles have to cover the corners better when they pack the paint. It was a problem last season and it will be a problem this season if the players don’t focus and hone in on the task at hand. Rebounding might become an issue against a specific team (*EHEM* DLSU *EHEM*) because of the rebounding being all centered around one player (Ikeh). Against most teams, that’ll work (as it did last season). But against certain teams, it won’t. That matters because it’s quite possible that if the Eagles can earn a Final Four spot, they’ll have to play against that team (in the semis or in the Finals).
I think more than the defensive issues, it will be all about execution.
Can the coaching staff hit the right notes in practice to get through to the players? Have they inculcated the necessary habits they’ll need to succeed this season?
For the players, it’ll be about focus (a constant source of stress for coaches). Will they keep their head straight and still have fun playing the game? Can they mesh their abilities well with the game plan or will they go on their own?
A Final Four spot is definitely possible. But it’ll depend on three things:
Health: The team lacks any source of “depth” where it can depend on a lot of different players consistently. An injury to one of their core players, especially a guy like Ikeh, can easily derail the season
Defense: Will the Eagles hold strong on that end early in the season instead of later? In 2015, the Eagles made consistent improvements over the course of the season until they eventually became an above-average defensive team. They weren’t bad at any one thing, but neither were they very good. That’s a problem, because most of the time, you have to pick your poison and hope your body can take the hit.
Focus: The Eagles in Season 78 were unfocused early on for one reason or another, they kept deviating from the game plan and that made life a living hell for everyone. It’s said that because everyone on the roster has something to prove, they’ll be hungrier. The problem is that their relative inexperience could also cost them games (as it did last season, especially versus a veteran team like the Tamaraws).