Ever since Tab Baldwin took over as coach in late 2015, he has installed a system that has produced results. In his first year, he took a supposedly rebuilding team to the finals, only to fall short by a few possessions. Two consecutive UAAP championships, along with victories in various leagues, representing the country in the Jones Cup, and getting victories against professional teams in the Philippines and abroad have adorned the Ateneo as the best collegiate team in the country.
Let me summarize this point in three words: ATENEO IS INEVITABLE.
At the end of the first round, Ateneo lords over the competition with an unblemished record. Among the first round games, six out of the seven games played by the Blue Eagles were won by double digits. The sole single digit win came against UST, and their 70 points scored by the Growling Tigers that game was the most points allowed by the Ateneo defense.
Let us look at how the Ateneo Blue Eagles managed to dominate every game they have played so far.
Ball movement is still the main currency for the Blue Eagles. Contrary to a “Seven-seconds-or-less” approach, Ateneo consumes a lot of their shot clock by running their sets patiently and moving the ball around to get an open look. In the past seasons, the action starts with a dribble hand-off from the big man, or a pick and roll action. A lot of the teams figured this out, with the offensive flow not as fluid as in the previous seasons.
In the first half of the first round, the Ateneo offense was such a disappointment to watch. It was such because it is not an issue of a lack of ball rotation, but the shots simply are not falling in. We should keep in mind that in the earlier stages, the Blue Eagles are heavily reliant on the three-point shot, shooting 155 of their 372 total shot attempts from deep. Out of the 155 threes the Blue Eagles took, they managed to convert on 34, with a 21.94% clip, the worst in the UAAP. The 45.62% (99/217) 2FG% of Ateneo is actually not that bad. In fact, only UE is ahead in that category at this stage. Too many missed threes diluted their shooting percentage to 35.75, worst in the UAAP. In this stretch, the Blue Eagles were ranked sixth in points per game, scoring 71.2 points per game,
To be honest, it’s hard to pinpoint where the problem lies. It could be that a lot of the open shots that Ateneo creates for themselves are from way out. These are shots that Tab Baldwin would give you the green light to take, especially when wide open. It could be because the Blue Eagles have very little setup time before taking a shot. If you look closely, there is very little time between receiving the ball and shooting. It may be a conscious effort to catch the defender of guard. One thing is for certain, there was a lot left to be desired.
Come the second half, a wrinkle has been added to the Ateneo offense. Instead of relying heavily on dribble hand-offs and the pick and roll action, they decided to dump the ball to Ange in the post. Here’s the thing. Last season, Ange Kouame was still raw. Yes, the man who scored 33 points and grabbed 27 rebounds in ONE game was still pretty wet behind the ears. If you check the offensive sets last season, he was a bit impatient. He was not waiting for the defender to brush him before rolling when setting a pick. He would get impatient in the post and face up to beat his man. Now, the difference is night and day. He has developed a lot of patience, and moves that come along with it. Ange now sets better picks, and his footwork in the post has been CRAZY. Imagine, in a span of a season, he has developed a drop-step, a dream shake, and a baby hook. If the shot is not available for him, he can kick the ball out and let it move around. This change in tactics even give Kouame the opportunity to grab those offensive rebounds, giving them second (and even sometimes third) chances to score. This has translated to a league best 130 offensive rebounds at the end of the first round. These have been important elements of the Ateneo offensive sets in the latter half of the first round.
At the end of the first round, Ateneo is second in scoring with 75.71 points per game. The field goal percentage also increased at 38.43%, third behind UE and DLSU.
If there is one thing constant about this Blue Eagle team, it’s that their defense is always present. It has been a joke that the “Get That Ball” cheer makes no sense now since the team gets plenty of that from Coach Tab.
As it has been said many times, Ateneo is not necessarily an “in your face” defensive team. When Filipinos talk about defense, it usually means a defender getting close enough to his assignment to know what brand of deodorant he’s wearing, or maybe flailing hands in the hopes of getting a steal. Adamson’s full-court press and UST’s Mayhem come to mind when talking about smash mouth defense.
Crudely put, Ateneo plays 40 minutes of patintero. If you are Filipino and grew up in an era where you can understand my reference, good for you. For the others, let me explain. Patintero is all about defending the space. It is more reliant on footwork than hand movement, and it requires the coordination of all the players in the field. At its very core, Ateneo’s defense has always been like that since Tab Baldwin took over.
During the opening games of the first round, Ateneo’s defense relied heavily on Ange Kouame. This is the most rim protection that the Blue Eagles have, and teams exploit it when he is on the bench. This, however, is a funny little tidbit. Five games into the season, Ateneo has given up the fewest points in the paint at 24ppg, and the lowest 2FG% allowed at 35.89%. How did Ateneo manage to shut the opposing team’s paint down? The answer lies in Ateneo’s ability to extend and collapse their defense seemingly at will.
Try this the next time you watch Ateneo play defense. Instead of looking at the primary defender, look at the other four Ateneans on the court. Try to watch how they move as the ball moves around. Watch how they adjust as the opposing team sets their picks. Watch how they extend when the offense wants to take a three (in the first five games of the season, Ateneo gave up 29.66% 3FG). Watch the Blue Eagles clog the paint. This is beautiful, disciplined (15.2 fpg in five games, least in the league) defense.
In the second half of the first round, the defense seemed to tighten a little more, and the metrics prove it. Ateneo is second to FEU in terms of total FG% allowed at 34.89%. If we break it down, they have the best interior defense in the league (37,39% 2fg allowed, 26 points in the paint allowed, both UAAP best). They hold their opponents to 29.93% 3FG allowed, the second highest percentage for any UAAP team. Do not get fooled by Ateneo’s low ranking, as they have allowed the opponents the LEAST NUMBER OF ATTEMPTS at 147. This is a testament to the defensive scheme, funneling the shooters to the paint to try a higher percentage shot in the paint (which they subsequently deny).
Ateneo has added quite a few wrinkles on their defensive schemes. They will try to press from time to time, and their transition on both ends of the floor have been seamless. This equates to a league-best 6.14 fast break points allowed, and 10 second chance points allowed
when it comes to rim protection, William Navarro and Thirdy Ravena add an extra dimension to what Ange Kouame’s height and timing already brings to the table. As it stands, Ange already blocks 4.86 shots per contest, good for third WHEN YOU COMPARE HIM AGAINST TEAMS. As a team, Ateneo denies 7.57 shots per game.
There are a lot of things that a stat sheet can cover, and this is where intangibles come to play. While these cannot be quantified by any metric, it swings the momentum in favor of the Blue Eagles every game. For example, take a look at the composure of this season’s Blue Eagles. The easiest example of this is against the UST Growling Tigers. Despite being down in the Third quarter and was on the verge of defeat, down 54-57 with three minutes left, the Blue Eagles simply executed their sets. They eventually got on the free throw line and eke out a 71-70 win to remain the only undefeated team. Against Adamson, Val Chauca was a man possessed and actually brought the lead to five, 52-57 in the fourth quarter. Ateneo unloaded 13 unanswered points to win the game 70-52. In arguably the most anticipated first round game of the season, the Blue Eagles kept their composure despite a hotly-contested matchup on and off the court and produced their most lopsided win this season, 89-63.
If the previous three seasons under Tab Baldwin (and the last 3 games of the first round) are anything to go by, the Blue Eagles amp their game up in the second round. Let this serve as a warning to the seven other teams playing: There might not be a Final Four if you let the Ateneo Blue Eagles have their way.