By Claro Manzano

Losing Ben Mbala alone to the league’s ever-changing eligibility rules was already a big blow. What more, the De La Salle Green Archers lost the Rivero brothers and it was particularly going to be Ricci’s time to shine but it is what it is.

The Lasallians shrugged things off and carried on. They held onto the fourth spot for much of the elimination round and even had one hand on third seed towards the end. Unfortunately for them, inexperience and lack of cohesion from injuries hounded them down the stretch.

There’s certainly no point in just sitting and crying over a spilled drink. Despite the rollercoaster moments – unexpected losses to the team, injuries, and missing the Final Four on a botched buzzer-beating play – the Green Archers valiantly carried on the Animo spirit within them. They still gave their community moments to be proud of. Let’s take a look at what was, and what’s to be:

Going for the “lucky” 13 lineup didn’t work this time

Last time La Salle paraded a 13-man lineup, it went onto win the UAAP Men’s Basketball Championship in 2013. Fortunately for the Green Archers that season, they stayed healthy and avoided any major injuries that got into their way. The biggest scare they had that season was whether lead point guard LA Revilla would get back into game shape on time as he was recovering from a preseason injury.

Unfortunately for this year’s Green Archer squad, going for the “lucky 13” lineup didn’t work out. Kiwi Taane Samuel, Ben Mbala’s replacement, suffered a Jones Fracture just minutes into his UAAP debut. And there went Kib Montalbo, who wasn’t only their lead point guard, but also their spiritual leader.

Despite injuries and their short roster, there were still times where players were marked as DNP – Coach’s’ Decision or received minimal playing time. Perhaps more potential could have been unlocked from the Lasallian bench and this could have been helpful late in the season or even in the coming years.

Despite the unfortunate turn of events, the Lasallians still pushed valiantly in their playoff hunt.

We have yet to see the real Taane Samuel

Members of the Lasallian community must certainly feel robbed about this. Yes they got to see Samuel play for five minutes in his UAAP debut. Then Taane suited up for three complete games at the end of the season, but he was certainly not in peak-condition. Samuel sitting out for practically the entire season got him rusty and out-of-sync with his teammates, particularly on defense.

We’ll have to wait and see next season to see how he’ll truly pan out. Unfortunately, for him and La Salle, that’s a valuable playing year lost, similar to how Thomas Torres was forced to miss majority of the 2014 season. For now, we have Samuel’s FilOil preseason performance to gauge things along with some of the handles he just showed us in his short-lived rookie year.

Justine Baltazar is the real deal

From being a third-stringer last season to being the team’s starting center and a Mythical Five member real quick. Sean Manganti won the Most Improved Player Award but some felt that it was Justine’s to take home.

Baltazar was just a last-minute addition to the Green Archers’ championship-winning squad in his rookie year in 2016. He proved his worth playing behind Mbala but unfortunately became a third-stringer the next year. Competition for frontcourt playing time had stiffened up with the addition of Dodong Santillan to a stacked roster back then.

The former NU Bullpup has grabbed the opportunity by the horns to prove why he was hotly recruited out of high school. He simply didn’t become a starting center since the likes of Tratter and Mbala are no longer with La Salle.

Baltazar has shown us what he could do. No fancy or athletic plays save for a few terrifying dunks. Yup, most of those dunks against UST.

We’ve seen Justine score in the clutch with a basic skill set that is clearly well-polished. They’re not fancy nor electrifying, but a made basket is still good for two points.

He has his touch from down low and he’ll punish you for leaving him open from midrange. Opponents were fine with Baltazar taking threes, but guarding him will become even more of a chore as Justine develops this in his arsenal.

What’s next for the Green Archers?

Unfortunately for La Salle, Louie Gonzales’ future in Taft is still uncertain after they JUST missed the Final Four bus. Tim Lewis, former Qatar Men’s National Team Coach, and Jermaine Byrd, who has worked in the NBA G-League and Korean Basketball League, were floated in as possible candidates for the job. We’ll have to wait and see for any official announcements. No matter who takes over though, make no mistake about it, there hasn’t been much continuity for the Green Archers’ program since brothers Dindo and Franz departed the program.

The Lasallians have had four different coaches in the past seven seasons. Amongst them Juno Sauler lasted the longest from 2013 to 2015 and picked up a title. Establishing continuity with a system that La Salle is comfortable with branding as its style of play is a big must for the Green Archers.

We saw Franz Pumaren’s full-court press establish a dynasty last decade. Then we saw Juno Sauler win it with his milk the post system. Then there’s Aldin Ayo’s “Mayhem” System that steam-rolled competition to the title behind Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng. Now what will be next for the Green Archers in their next bid to the top of the podium and hopefully create another dynasty?