TEAM RECORD LAST SEASON: 7-7, lost to Ateneo in the Final Four
KEY LOSS: Ron Dennison
Ron Dennison was quite the controversial figure coming into Season 80, mostly because of his involvement in a preseason brawl with the De La Salle Green Archers. However as the season progressed, we were eventually witness to the best version of Dennison. He emerged as FEU’s most consistent player throughout the year, transforming himself into a complete two-way force. While showcasing the grit he’s long been known for, he surprised opposing teams with improved slashing ability, as well as respectable shooting from beyond the arc. All in all, it resulted into greater production from Dennison, an uptick from the 3.5 points he averaged in Season 79. His evolution was key for the Tamaraws’ success, as they turned from Final Four contenders into a team that was one stop away from a Final appearance. But more than the huge leap in his play, the bigger gap that Dennison left FEU was his undeniable leadership. Now it is up for the remaining core players to fill in that role.
KEY ADDITION: LJay Gonzales
The loaded gunners of the FEU Tamaraws just got new ammunition. With the pool of guard talent already laid on their lineup such as Cani, Jasper Parker, Wendell Comboy, and Axel Inigo, the addition of LJ Gonzales should only bolster the stacked guard rotation of FEU. The 19 year old do-it-all point guard is one of the top high school prospects as he led the FEU Baby Tamaraws in scoring with 15.4 points per game while also leading the league in assists and steals during the Season 80 of the UAAP Junior’s division. Packed with his sound offensive skills and defensive tenacity, expect the former Junior Finals MVP to make silent key contributions in limited minutes off the bench as he rides the deep end of the guard rotation for the Tamaraws.
KEY RETURNEES: Hubert Cani, Prince Orizu
If the preseason games were any indication for the upcoming season of the Tamaraws, then Hubert Cani is in for an explosive breakout season. Showing off his elite offensive skills, Cani made a statement in the preseason by leading his team in scoring in a number of contests. In particular was the quarterfinal matchup FEU had versus La Salle in the Filoil tournament, where Cani led all scorers with 22 points on an effective 8 of 10 shooting clip. The highlight of that game was a scintillating step back dagger off of an isolation as if to tell his defender, “you can’t guard me!” Once a coveted high school prospect, Cani has had a rough collegiate career due to academic mishaps and being out of shape most of the time. The scoring guard will now have a chance to ride his momentous performance in the preseason and make wonders for the Tamaraws come Season 81.
Prince Orizu is entering the final year of his collegiate career and the Nigerian center should be a vital cog for the team’s success. Mostly under the radar throughout his career, Orizu has been an effective force for FEU in the center position. The 6’10” lefty hulk has the tools to e an unstoppable force inside, with his sheer size and his improved finishing ability off drop passes and pick and roll actions. Add in the fact that the former football goalkeeper has superb abilities to defend the paint and with enough motivation, Orizu should be in for a huge farewell season.
KEY STATS: 17.4 Assists per game (1st in the league in Season 80), 65.8 AST% (2nd in the league in Season 80)
FEU and Ateneo were the top two teams in assists per game last season, with FEU holding a slim lead then over the defending champions. What separatesd the Tamaraws from Ateneo, however, was their assist rate. While the Blue Eagles had a steady 61.5%, FEU was more efficient at 65.8% which was second in the league. It’s a testament to how the effective dribble drive system was that head coach Olsen Racela instilled in his team. Relying primarily on ball screens and pick and rolls, the efficiency of the dribble drive was on display for the Tamaraws especially with their load of talent in the guard position. This season, guards/wings like Jasper Parker, Wendell Comboy, Cani and Tolentino will continue to hold the fort for their offensive attacks while benefiting easy points for skilled big men such as Orizu, Barkley Ebona and Richard Escoto.
KEY QUESTION: With an almost intact core lineup from last season, can the Tamaraws go all the way and win the championship?
It’s no secret, Ateneo is the favorites to win it all. Ateneo has emerged as seemingly the Golden State Warriors of the UAAP (So who’s KD/Thanos? Tab? Kouame? Discuss. – ed). They are this well-oiled super machine that is just on another level of play right now. But what if luck turned against them? What if they peaked too early? What if the hype and preseason titles prove too much for the Blue Eagles? What if the FEU Tamaraws, somehow, beat Ateneo in the Finals and raise the trophy for the sea of green and yellow?
Last season, the Tamaraws were oh so close in beating Ateneo, but Isaac Go had other plans. But past is past. With almost the same lineup that gave the Blue Eagles a scare, FEU clearly has the tools of completing the upset this season. Plenty of things would have to go right for this to happen for FEU, such as making sure that Isaac Go leaves his Kobe clutch genes at home, then maybe, just MAYBE, they could crash the party at Katipunan and get to their date with the Season 81 championship.
X – FACTOR: Arvin Tolentino
When I first watched Arvin Tolentino four years ago while he was still playing in Ateneo, I immediately saw superstar potential. He was a unique prospect, standing at 6’5”, but with a smooth and complete offensive game that made him a walking mismatch. I even remember telling my dad, “Yan ang susunod na Ranidel de Ocampo”. However, things didn’t go as smoothly as expected with Tolentino. After two rocky seasons with Ateneo, Tolentino transferred to FEU in 2016 and made his debut season in Season 80. The transfer looked smart, as he received more possessions as a result of the trust given to him by Coach Olsen Racela. There was one problem, however: his offensive inefficiency. Tolentino only converted an average of 3.9 makes per game, which led to a 39% shooting clip. As talented as he is, efficiency still matters. Tolentino is clearly THE guy of the FEU squad. Everybody knows it and it will be up to him to step up and help deliver another championship back to Morayta.
PREDICTION: FEU finishes the elimination round at 10-4, beats Adamson in the Final Four, and pushes Ateneo to a do or die championship game before bowing down to the defending champions in Game 3
After scratching their way into the Final Four last season, it is not hard to see the Tamaraws improving their previous record and finishing second after the elimination games come Season 81. Former powerhouse La Salle has cleaned the slate and could possibly miss the playoffs while Adamson and UP should squeak their way through the Final Four. While I have the Falcons and Maroons as shoo-ins for the third and fourth spot, respectively, I still expect the top two seeds to advance in the Finals.
While many will surely expect a runaway championship for Ateneo versus FEU, I will not be surprised if it will go down as an instant classic. And like last year, the Tams will push the Eagles to the limit. Will we see another Isaac Go bail out shot? Or another Thirdy Ravena all out balls crazy drive at the end game? Or Jasper Parker’s super layups down the wire? Or maybe Arvin Tolentino bounces back from his blunder last year? Maybe. But I am willing to bet this. Once these two teams clash again in a series, expect another dogfight.