TEAM RECORD LAST SEASON: 12-2, lost to the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the Finals 

KEY LOSSES: Ben Mbala, Abu Tratter, Ricci Rivero, Aldin Ayo

Photo Credit: Tristan Tamayo, Inquirer.net

Aside from the departure of Ayo, the Green Archers also lost Abu Tratter due to graduation Ramil Tero, one of Ayo’s recruits last season, moved on as well and is now serving his residency for the San Sebastian College-Recoletos Golden Stags in the NCAA.

But the real painful losses were that of Ricci Rivero (who took Brent Paraiso and Prince Rivero along with him), as well as Ben Mbala who now plays abroad. Both of them were the top scorers of La Salle, and franchise star caliber players. There’s no easy way to say it, they’re big losses for La Salle.

KEY ADDITIONS: Coach Louie Gonzales, Taane Samuel, Encho Serrano 

Photo Credit: Richard Esguerra, ABS-CBN Sports

Taking over the head coaching duties will be Louie Gonzales, who served as Ayo’s assistant throughout his two-year stay with the Green Archers. The new head coach retained the trapping press of his predecessor but tweaked his system on the offensive end. Instead of solely relying on their defense to produce points, Gonzales welcomed the idea of playing through the post in their half-court sets.

Even without Tratter, Mbala, and Prince, Gonzales will still have enough big men to implement his new system. La Salle will welcome two newcomers in Taane Samuel and Brandon Bates. The former has represented New Zealand in the FIBA Under-19 World Championships while the latter is a Filipino-Australian who has shown flashes of dominating on both ends of the floor.

Filling in the wing spots vacated by Paraiso and Ricci are Taytung High School standout Miggy Corteza and former Ateneo Blue Eaglet Joaqui Manuel.  Corteza started a few games in the recently concluded Filoil Flying V Preseason Cup and impressed right away with his energy and hustle on the defensive end of the floor. Manuel, meanwhile, will most likely play as a combo forward, with his blend of skill and size.

Rounding up the additions for Season 81 is Encho Serrano, who will take up Tero’s role as the team’s reserve point guard. He is now set to reignite his basketball career with the Green Archers after facing a controversy with the Adamson Baby Falcons a couple of years ago. In case you forgot, he was close to winning MVP in his stint with the Baby Falcons then. He’s a legitimate prospect the La Salle community should keep their eyes on.

KEY RETURNEES: Justine Baltazar, Kib Montalbo

Photo Credit: Tristan Tamayo, Inquirer.net

Justine Baltazar, Gabe Capacio, Andrei Caracut, Jollo Go, Aljun Melecio, Kib Montalbo, and Santi Santillan are the only holdovers from the team who placed second last season. Montalbo will most likely be the team’s new captain following Prince’s exit, while Baltazar is expected to shoulder a bigger role for the Taft-based squad in Season 81.

Baltazar had a splendid preseason as he helped lead the Green Archers to the quarterfinals of the Filoil tournament. Baltazar saw his playing time rise under the new regime and was named in the Mythical Five alongside Javee Mocon of the SBU Red Lions and a trio of Blue Eagles (Angelo Kouame, Matt Nieto and Thirdy Ravena).

Montalbo, meanwhile, missed a huge chunk of games due to a surgery to remove bone spurs in his right ankle but was equally impressive before the injury. His most notable performance came against the Gilas Pilipinas – Cadet Team as he exploded for 25 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and five steals. If the Bacolod native can stay healthy and carry over his preseason form in the UAAP, then his final campaign with the Green Archers should be a memorable one.

Completing the squad for Season 81 is Mark Dyke, who came back to play for the Green Archers after missing the entire campaign last year. The former NU Bullpup will provide Gonzales additional toughness and muscle inside the paint as Dyke can play as an undersized power forward in today’s UAAP.

Fielding a 13-man roster for the entire season is not something new for the Green Archers as former head coach Juno Sauler did it back in Season 76. The soft-spoken mentor led the Lasallians to their first championship since Season 70 as they overcame the UST Growling Tigers in a best-of-three Finals series.

KEY STATS: 43.3% FG (first in the league in Season 80), 31.2% 3PT (second in the league in Season 80), 78.1 points per game (second in the league in Season 80)

On paper, the Green Archers were efficient in making their shots last season as they topped the league in field goal percentage while coming in at second in three-point shooting behind the Blue Eagles (32.8%). The “Mayhem” system of Ayo allowed the team to capitalize on the opponent’s turnovers and turn it into easy fast break points thus contributing to the team’s high field goal percentage. The ability of Ricci and Montalbo in breaking down the perimeter defense of opposing teams also created easy scoring opportunities inside the paint for the La Salle big men as hand-offs and lob passes were a frequent sight. The post presence of Mbala alone gave the shooters enough time and space to set-up their shot as teams would send out double teams to guard the big man inside the paint. This was a big reason why they did so well from three-point range last season.

With the departure of key players like Mbala, and Ricci, the Green Archers will have a massive hole in the scoring department. Gonzales needs to implement an offensive game plan that will fit with the players’ strengths and give everyone an opportunity to contribute in every game. The presence of the twin towers (Samuel & Bates) and the emergence of Baltazar will most likely keep the Green-and-White on top of the field goal and three-point stat category. More post plays is expected in the new regime thus forcing the opposing coaches to send out double/triple teams in the paint. This defensive game plan will surely leave a few players in the perimeter and Gonzales has capable shooters to rely on.

KEY QUESTION: How many games will it take before the players click and buy into the new system of Gonzales?

This will be the burning question for this year’s batch of Green Archers as they look to dethrone the Blue Eagles. Seven players returned from the Season 80 roster but only four of them received heavy minutes from Ayo. Integrating the newcomers with the holdovers will definitely be a challenge for Gonzales since they’ve only played together for a few months.

Familiarity with each other’s tendencies will be crucial in executing their system perfectly. Management tried to address this by bringing the team to Korea and Taiwan right after the Filoil tournament for additional tune-up games. Even though the team failed to win a title in their stints outside the country, it certainly helped increase the team’s chemistry.

X-FACTOR: Santi Santillan

Photo Credit: Joseph Nebrida, GoArchers.com

The former University of Visayas standout was recruited by Ayo last year and was immediately thrust in the starting line-up in his debut UAAP season. He played majority of his minutes at the power forward under Ayo but due to the emergence of Baltazar and the addition of Samuel this season, Gonzales has played with the idea of putting Santillan at the Small Forward position.

The experiment in the preseason was a success as Santillan’s versatility allowed Gonzales to employ a towering frontline that will be hard for any team to match. On the defensive end, the sophomore is quick enough to keep up with the opposing team’s wings, while his improved post-up play and midrange game will be pivotal on the offensive side of the floor.

All of these skills are just a bonus for Gonzales as Santillan’s main strength is in the rebounding department. Despite playing with Mbala in the same frontline last season, Santillan was still able to gobble up double-digit rebounds and help the team gain extra possessions. His activity rebounding the basketball will be vital in the team’s race to a championship this year.

PREDICTION: 9-5 record after the elimination round, loses to the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the Finals

At the very least, La Salle should make the Final Four with a few losses along the way as they try to get familiar with the new system. An improved level of play from the other teams will make it difficult for the Green Archers to better or match their record from last season.

Best case scenario for La Salle would be a championship in Gonzales’ first year as head coach (Ayo did it in Season 79), but accomplishing this feat would mean taking down the defending champions in the Finals. After a scintillating showing in the 40th edition of the William Jones Cup last month, the Blue Eagles remain as the heavy favorites coming into the new UAAP season.