The story of reigning champs FEU Tamaraws‘ Season 79 campaign will obviously center on their title defense, which appears to be a tall and daunting order. Recent history suggests that the odds are stacked against them, as the crown has gone on an annual campus tour since 2012. Add to that, the present landscape of the league is significantly different from last year, as most, if not all, of the teams have made major revamps in the offseason.
Due to the nature of collegiate basketball, the Tamaraws could not keep the band that won it all together last season. This has left them with no choice but to undergo a massive overhaul with their roster. It was closing time for the collegiate careers of Mac Belo, Mike Tolomia, Roger Pogoy, Russel Escoto, Francis Tamsi, and Achie Inigo — six top-notch players who were vital cogs during their championship run, six players that possessed a wide array of skillsets that made the Tamaraws lethal on both ends of the court.
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With the Tamaraws losing the core of their group last season, one may wonder how will they fare this time around. To lose one player could cripple a team. To lose six, three of whom (Belo, Tolomia, and Pogoy) were arguably among the top ten players in the league last season, could mean missing limbs, a fractured skull, and chopped liver. But let us not forget that this is FEU, a proud basketball program that has 20 UAAP titles to its name. If there’s one institution that knows how to stay afloat despite difficult circumstances, it must be them.
The departure of megastar players is not something new to FEU, especially during the tenure of Coach Nash Racela. He has seen the exits of two former league MVPs, Terrence Romeo and RR Garcia, after his first season in 2013. However, he has found ways to build from ashes and groom the Tamaraws to become perennial title contenders. In three seasons under him, FEU has consistently been an entertaining offensive juggernaut with a decent defense. Last year, they sported a league-best offensive rating of 94.9 points per 100 while limiting to opponents to 86.9 per 100, 0.8 better than the league average, and the lowest in Racela era.
Last Wednesday, they began their quest for back-to-back titles sans Belo and company. They couldn’t have asked for a tougher opening assignment, as they faced a galactico squad in the DLSU Green Archers. To the surprise of no one, La Salle won, 83-78. But they had to earn it the hard way, as the Tamaraws gave them a legitimate run for their money until the last few plays of the game. Sure, it was an L on their record, but FEU did something that they, as the defending champions, needed to do — remind us that they won’t be pushovers this year.
Regeneration of Missing Parts
With Coach Nash still at the helm, the Tamaraws unleashed their lethal dribble-drive offense against DLSU. Now without the usual suspects in the backcourt, the team relied on the play of last year’s role players – Joe Trinidad, Ron Dennison, Monbert Arong, Wendell Comboy. Arong and Comboy put up moves that resembled Mike Tolomia’s — with slick passes and drives to the basket. Trinidad took and converted a number of one-hand floaters to avoid the presence of Ben Mbala in the paint. But it was Dennison that stood out the most. From a prototypical 3&D guy last season, he has now emerged as a potent offensive weapon, while also being FEU’s best individual defender. He was able to showcase Jeron Teng‘s defensive limitations, as he outwitted him on a number of attacks towards the basket.
All-in-all, it was a surprisingly good performance by the backcourt, though there is still a lot of work to be done, especially on offense. The dribble-drive motion needs a lot of crisp passing from one side to the other, which we did not see that much in this game. On defense, their three-point defense was a bit spotty as the DLSU guards got a lot of open looks at the three-point area.
Raymar Jose: The Experiment
Raymar Jose was my favorite non-UP player in UAAP last season for two reasons: 1) he’s left-handed, and 2) he exemplifies tito basketball. There weren’t any plays called for him, but his way of sneaking in towards the basket gave him a plethora of opportunities for points and rebounds. That is why despite using a lowly 16.9% of possessions last season, he was among the leaders in offensive rating, PER, and rebounding.
For this season, he seemed to have the biggest role transformation on this squad. From a 4 or 5 that occasionally had to bang with the bigs inside, Raymar now steps up to fill the void created by Belo’s departure. Now he is a playmaker, stationed way outside the paint. From hustle guy you didn’t have to run plays for, Raymar is now FEU’s top gun.
As a result of his promotion, you can expect his efficiency to dip this year. He’ll use up more possessions and likely commit more turnovers. His rebounding numbers will probably take a hit too, as he finds himself farther away from the paint. But I, the self-proclaimed number one Raymar fan, won’t mind that as long as he keep on doing this:
Who would have thought that Raymar could dribble the ball like that?
One thing that we’ll look from him is how he’ll balance his scoring and playmaking duties. He has the tendency to take the shot, without faking and/or dribbling, when he is within the vicinity of the hoop. Even if his teammates are wide open. Even if Mbala is in sight.
On the other end, Raymar is a disciplined individual defender. Instead of using his hands to pester the opponents, he uses his girth to bang them. He may be slow, but his length helps him cover ground against faster players.
Can They Repeat?
You can’t underestimate the heart of a champion. Puso, remember?
The system that propelled them to the title is still in place, although it will be handled altogether by a different crew. The back-to-back hopes of FEU Tamaraws rest on the development of the former role players as protagonists, and on the success of the Raymar Jose-playmaker experiment.
One could argue that the DLSU squad that they almost beat is still a work in progress. But isn’t it the same for the FEU Tamaraws ?
If that’s the case, writing them off would be foolish.
All videos courtesy of ABS-CBN Sports.