It was the last two minutes of FEU’s lone Final Four game in Season 81. SJ Belangel had just banged home a triple to stretch Ateneo’s lead to 24, as the blue crowd roared while the other side started to pack. It was the end of a long journey of an inconsistent season by FEU, whose season was filled with dirty marks of losing to plenty of non-contenders.
UST, UE and La Salle all were able to split their season series against the team who experts marked in the pre-season as THE challenger to the defending champions. After all, they were one possession away from slaying the titans last year had it not been for an errant play.
Fast forward to Season 81, and this challenger did not show up in some games. However, their brilliance did manifest in some games including a titanic kill of Ateneo, and a thriller versus Adamson, both in the first round.
Zooming into the numbers, FEU was a team that was stagnant in a league that changed at hyper-speed.
This year, the Tamaraws were the leading 3-point shooting team in the league with a 33% clip, while also leading the league in perimeter points with 34.2. In total, their shot selection was not bad at all finishing the regular season at second in the league in field goal percentage at 41%
But that was practically FEU’s daily bread as they finished seventh in the league in points inside the paint. They ranked as such despite a goliath frontline of Prince Orizu, Kenneth Tuffin, Barkley Ebona and Richard Escoto, a deep rotation for a league that yearns for that breed of height and athleticism.
And here is another hot number, FEU lagged in rim protection for the last two years, ranking dead last in blocked shots.
Here are the other stats that has kept Coach Olsen Racela and the rest of his staff awake at night.
FEU fell from second in the league in rebounds in Season 80 to seventh in Season 81 which translated to more possessions for their opponents and less for the Tams.
The Tamaraws also felt no need for speed.
Coming in 8th in pace and dead last in fastbreak points, the speedy combo guards with the names of Jasper Parker, Axel Inigo and Alec Stockton favored a deliberate offense over the run-and-gun.
To translate all the statistics meant one thing, the Morayta playbook leaned heavily on slow breaks and chucking the most points from the perimeter. Once the perimeter game went south, so goes the W.
The expectations for the season quickly changed from being a title contender to just hoping for another Final Four appearance after a few games. Lagging two games behind La Salle with the regular season winding down, FEU barged into the semis via backdoor with a late game, season-saving triple from Arvin Tolentino that sent the crowd into pandemonium and the players into tears of joy.
That was THE moment of FEU this season. However, moving forward, as for title expectations, FEU might have to wait a little longer.
With five Tamaraws exhausting their eligibility years, FEU’s needs another mad scorer like Tolentino. With Orizu, Parker, Tolentino, Arjay Ramirez and Axel Inigo also leaving, reconstruction of FEU back into contender level will be the main agenda of team management.
But FEU is not a team without talent.
The bench is the league’s best with 36.9 points coming from the second stringers. The loss of the Parker-Inigo combo will allow LJ Gonzales more time to break speed limits as long as he can keep his energy under control.
Overshadowing the handful of games Gonzales saved for FEU were his erratic turnover numbers in his limited minutes on the floor at 1.4 a game. Add this to Stockton’s 1.3 errors a game, you would have a guard combo that is bound to give the ball up more than any guards in the league in a full 40-minute game.
As for the replacement foreign student athlete, FEU has Patrick Tchuente in place, one that definitely has the height, but polish in his game is still needed. His overall impact on the game remains to be seen.
This setting is not new for the FEU Tamaraws.
FEU’s program is known to dig deep into their diverse talent pool and form a squad that has been in the contender conversation year in and out.
This time, FEU might have to seek other options. Barkley Ebona played his fourth season with marginal improvements on both his points and rebound numbers. From 4.5 points per game to 5.3, and from 5.6 rebounds a game to 6.2. With a new foreign student athlete coming in, Ebona, Tuffin, and maybe even Clifford Jopia, will need to step-up in a huge way to compensate for Orizu, Tolentino, and Escoto’s departure.
Ideally, Hubert Cani will fill in whatever scoring FEU will lose from Arvin. But unlike Arvin, Cani is inconsistent. When he is hot, he torches the net the whole game. And when he is not, the whole FEU offense gets stuck watching him brick his step-back jumpers all game.
There are plenty of questions. But remember this: FEU always surprises and just like in seasons past, the Tamaraws could possibly rise once more. Both sides of the spectrum could make sense. They could be a title contender, owing to a program that has been the most consistent in the UAAP for quite some time. They could also be cellar-dwellers for once, as the league will be peaking in terms of depth of talent come Season 82.
We won’t know for now. We have to wait come Season 82. Yet, remember: this is FEU basketball. Consistent, gritty, and most importantly, proven.