By Gio Gloria
Frustrating is perhaps an understatement when describing what the Green Archers went through in UAAP Season 81. Although the loss of Ben Mbala made it feel like a rebuilding year, La Salle fans still felt the sting of last season as the team had every chance to make the Final Four. Alas, having a foot at the door of the Final Four means nothing as missed opportunities brought back shades of Season 78.
Season 82 presents a new opportunity for La Salle to add to their decorated basketball history in the UAAP. Motivated veterans, not to mention a new coaching staff and a solid crop of incoming players, will definitely want to build on what was an otherwise strong showing in the preseason.
On paper, more than half of the team will be playing their first season with DLSU and key for the Green Archers will be the ability of the coaching staff, led by active consultant Jermaine Byrd and head coach Gian Nazario, to spread the wealth among the players.
Team Record Last Season: 8-6, tied with FEU and UP, but lost the playoff for the fourth seed against FEU, 71-70
DLSU had control of its Final Four destiny for most of the season thanks to big wins over Adamson and FEU, yet the team squandered its chances (against FEU in the second round) and missed the postseason for the first time since 2015 (thanks again to FEU, welp).
DLSU’s final possession in Season 81 perfectly encapsulates what the team went through: the plan was well thought of but sadly, sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce in one’s favor. Naturally, injuries such as those suffered by Taane Samuel and Kib Montablo can play a factor but as the old sports adage goes, the best ability is availability.
Key Losses: Kib Montalbo, Santi Santillan, Jollo Go, Mark Dyke, Taane Samuel
Among the graduating players, Montalbo and Santillan will be sorely missed. Montalbo was the team’s leader in more ways than one: his effort on the court served as an example to his teammates, some of whom he would coach up when the need arose. Santillan on the other hand, slid into the Jason Perkins role, providing the rebounding and low-post offense to support Justine Baltazar.
Though Go and Dyke played roles in DLSU’s championship run in 2016, their sporadic playing time prevented them from consistently making an impact on a game-to-game basis. When they were on the court, Dyke would usually serve as an athletic cover to opposing wings or big men, while Go would be used to ignite the offense, with the former Gilas Cadet’s career-high 14 points coming during a 110-69 blowout win over the UST Growling Tigers last season.
Since the day he was reported to be the DLSU foreign-athlete for Season 81, Samuel had huge shoes to fill. His performance in the FilOil preseason tourney would have served as an early indication of success, but a late-game foot injury against Ateneo should have been a sign of what was to come.
In their opening UAAP game against FEU, Samuel again injured his foot, this time suffering a stress fracture that forced him to miss a huge chunk of Season 81. Although he came back with a couple of games to play, it was too little too late for him to get acclimated to the team again. Once the season ended, he returned to New Zealand, abruptly ending his stint with the Green Archers.
Key Additions: active consultant Jermaine Byrd, head coach Gian Nazario, Joel Cagulangan, Joshua David, Ralph Cu, Donn Lim, Kurt Lojera, Tyrus Hill, Jordan Bartlett, Keyshawn Evans, Jamie Orme, and James Laput
Thanks to academic credentials and recruitment efforts, La Salle gets a solid if not enviable crop of rookies every year. Sadly, not all of their rookies finish out their careers with the team.
Robert Bolick and Ricci Rivero are just some of the former Green Archers who have moved on to other teams (for various reasons), with Bolick winning a three-peat in San Beda, playing heavy minutes with the PBA’s Northport Batang Pier, and now suiting up for the national team in the FIBA World Cup.
Cagulangan, Cu, and David headline the rookies entering this season, but it’s the transferees that have been making their mark in the preseason. While Hill has been sidelined with an injury for most of the preseason, it’s his Adamson teammate Lojera who has been maximizing his minutes, even occasionally starting for the team during the FilOil tournament. Bartlett, who sat out last season after transferring from NU, has established himself in the rotation and emerged as the leader of the second unit.
Last July, several media outlets reported that DLSU acquired the services of Evans, Orme, and Laput, all of whom will be playing this season thanks to the UAAP’s one-and-done rule, made famous by former NU player Troy Rike. Although the three saw action during the recently concluded Kadayawan Sports Festival Invitational Basketball Tournament, expect there to be an adjustment phase considering the likes of Bartlett, Lojera, and Hill haven been with the team since last season.
Key Returnees: Justine Baltazar, Andrei Caracut, Aljun Melecio, Encho Serrano, Brandon Bates, Joaqui Manuel
Melecio, Caracut, and Baltazar are expected to be the team’s leaders, but it’s the latter two that we’ll focus on first. Baltazar, fresh off UAAP Mythical Five honors, has continued to grow with each passing season, starting out as the Boban Marjanovic to Mbala’s Joel Embiid and now serving as a key defensive lynchpin for La Salle. He will look to build on his FilOil Preseason MVP campaign, where he took turns with Bates matching up against the foreign student-athletes of opposing teams.
Since going down with the sickness during the first round of his rookie year, Caracut has struggled to regain his FilOil 2015 preseason form. But as the first option on the wings, now is the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time. If the 2019 preseason is any indication, Caracut is more than capable of taking over a game. To remain effective, he just needs to balance finding his own shot and the shots of others. He will be key for the likes of Bates and Manuel, who may not have Caracut or Melecio’s shot-making abilities but are more than capable of being finishers or even secondary playmakers.
Serrano has had moments in leading the second unit back in Season 81, and the athleticism he has displayed the past two years proves he provides a different element on offense. Manuel and Bates don’t always need the ball to be effective; setting screens and making the right passes have made them among the reliable big men that the DLSU coaching staff trust even in crucial situations.
Key Stat(s): Assists and Turnovers
Unlike in recent years, when it was either Jeron Teng or Ben Mbala taking a lion’s share of touches, there was no legitimate go-to guy for DLSU to rely on when the team needed a basket. Baltazar still has bouts of inconsistency, while Melecio tends to force things on offense to the point that you think he’s never met a shot he hasn’t liked.
Hence, from a feel standpoint, it seems as if assists are the key to success for the Green Archers this season. DLSU will need to move the ball around to find the open man and create lanes for their slashers. Although Teng was there in 2013, La Salle more often than not began their offensive sets by feeding their big men on the post.
From a statistical standpoint, it’s turnovers that will decide the fate of DLSU. Although they’ve won games despite amassing more than 30 turnovers (coincidentally all against the UE Red Warriors), the Green Archers cannot assume that turnovers will just be a number. A turnover can lead to a number of things: Handing the ball to the opponent gives them an extra possession, which means they could score more points. This doesn’t even consider that they could score from the free throw line (and thus dead clock) or that they can get an extra possession off an offensive rebound, which gives them an extra chance at scoring.
Key Question: Can DLSU make it all work?
This question is common among all the UAAP teams, but none of the other squads are going through turnover at the level La Salle is going through. In terms of player personnel, perhaps UE and UST are arguably going through the same thing, however, among the eight squads in the UAAP, only La Salle is entering Season 82 with a new head coach (and active consultant).
The challenge also lies in how Byrd and Nazario can manage the minutes of Caracut, Melecio, Bartlett and Cagulangan, all of whom prefer to have the ball in their hands. Although Serrano may fall under the same category, his play last season and this preseason has shown he is capable of playing off-ball and in transition.
X-Factor: Aljun Melecio
Melecio is at his best when he’s a team player and yes, team player here can still mean he’s got his score first mentality. During his rookie year, the DLSZ standout was more patient with the ball in his hands, and his 8.4 ppg average stood out even if he didn’t start any game that season. The following year, he contracted the dengue virus, forcing him to miss part of Season 79. Although he played more minutes (17.6 to 25.7) in the nine games he suited up, his field-goal percentage suffered (36.9 percent to 25.3 percent). In Season 81, he led the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game on a career-best 37.9 field-goal percentage, but it wasn’t enough to bring DLSU back to the Final Four.
This season, key for Melecio will be to exercise more patience when it comes to running offensive sets. There are times he feels that the play has already broken down and as one of the more senior players of the team, he (and Caracut) must now take on Montalbo’s role of setting the tone for his teammates.
If things go well and his shots fall, the sky’s the limit for the Green Archers.
(Bold) Prediction: 10-4, 2nd seed. Final Four win over UP and Finals W over top-seed Ateneo
The Green Archers could start slow considering that there are so many new pieces to put together. UP and Ateneo will definitely be the toughest opponents for DLSU and early losses will help the Green Archers in the long run. The Blue Eagles are a well-oiled machine so they will take the top seed and whether the Green Archers finish at 2nd or 3rd, they’ll peak at the right time to take down the defending champs in what should be a fun three-game series.
DLSU’s problems on offense are more systematic than traditional (free throws welp). Looking back at their more recent title wins, the system and personnel meshed together like a glove on a hand and quite frankly, the years following those championships had only remnants of the glory years.
Analysts will all say that either Ateneo or UP will take home the title this year but La Salle, which will be the only UAAP team to go All-Filipino this season, overcoming the odds and winning it all relies on trusting the process and patience. With the way things ended last season, there was that combination of sayang and bitin, but with a coach preaching fundamentals, this may be the start of something new.