With the 78th installment of the UAAP to open on September 5, the men’s basketball tournament can easily be dubbed as one of the most exciting and anticipated yearly events in Philippine basketball. As this generation’s collegiate stars will once again be grinding their hearts out in the hardcourt all with the common goal of a championship in mind, it will be interesting to see which ball club will come out on top. This season, however, will be much different from the more recent seasons due to some new, albeit controversial, changes. With all the hype surrounding this year’s UAAP season, here are four things to look out for in what promises to be a season filled with excitement:

1. The Controversial Senate Bill No. 2226

The Senate Bill No. 2226 or better known as the “Student-Athletes Protection Act” is a law that was proposed by Senator Pia Cayetano to terminate the residency rules that student-athletes had to endure transferring from high school to college in which both schools involved were under the UAAP. For example, if a student-athlete coming from De La Salle Zobel (DLSU’s UAAP juniors affiliate) decides to transfer to Ateneo for his/her college education, he/she will be forced to sit out two seasons prior to getting the chance to play in UAAP. This, of course, has been met with much controversy throughout recent years and has undoubtedly affected many promising student-athletes with the most documented being Jerie Pingoy, a two-time UAAP Juniors’ basketball MVP with the FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws. Pingoy, who transferred to Ateneo for college and sat out in Seasons 76 and 77, will finally get his first taste of UAAP basketball this upcoming season. Another well-known former UAAP juniors’ star-turned-Atenean is Hubert Cani, who spent majority of his high school days with the NU Bullpups. Cani led the Bullpups to two championships in three years wherein his most notable performance was defeating the Ateneo Blue Eaglets in Season 77’s juniors basketball finals and consequently being named the Finals MVP. Unlike Pingoy, however, the ex-Bullpup will not be as pleased heading into the season. Less than three weeks before the start of Season 78, Hubert Cani was deemed ineligible to suit up for the Blue Eagles by the UAAP Board. Amidst much controversy, the UAAP decided that Cani was ineligible due to the fact that he enrolled in Ateneo at the time the old residency rule was still intact. Ateneo has appealed the decision although it is very much likely that Ateneo fans will have to wait for another year to see their star recruit in action. Aside from the two aforementioned Ateneans, another promising young player, Mario Bonleon, is a former UE Red Warriors recruit who decided to transfer to the UST Growling Tigers just before the start of UAAP Season 76. He will also make his long-awaited UAAP debut this upcoming season.

Photo Credit: Rappler.com (http://static.rappler.com/images/cani-pingoy-20140719.jpg)

Jerie Pingoy finally gets the chance to play after sitting out due to the controversial “Pingoy rule.” Cani, however, was deemed ineligible just weeks before the start of the season. (Photo Credit: Rappler.com)

This bill not only affects veterans who have been patiently waiting for their much-awaited time in the UAAP, but it also gives young players more time to play and consequently further develop and hone their skills. This season’s rookies will be blessed with the opportunity to play in the UAAP directly out of their respective high schools. Speaking of rookies…

2. The Rooks

Although the stereotypical image of rookies being the ones to carry their upperclassmen’s luggage and bring coffee and doughnuts to practice may not necessarily apply to the UAAP, the rookies will still have to bear the expectations and pressure of being the new kids on the block. This upcoming season marks the time wherein they start off fresh and their accomplishments prior to college will hold little ground. This is the opportunity for the rookies to prove critics that they deserve a spot in the collegiate level. With that said, one can only be excited for the much-awaited debuts of big-name rookies who came from different high schools all trying to leave their marks in the UAAP.

Most eyes are turned to the debut of the Season 77 Juniors MVP “Big” Mike Nieto along with his twin brother and fellow Mythical Five member, Matthew Nieto for their squad since grade school, the Ateneo Blue Eagles. Much will be expected from these two high school superstars especially with their strong performances in their Season 77 Championship run with the Blue Eaglets. Many questions have also been asked about the effectiveness of the twins in the collegiate level especially with Big Mike’s transformation from playing a dominant low post big man for majority of his career to a versatile forward-guard during his senior year in high school; also with Matthew most likely playing the point guard position with a hint of the two guard, it will be interesting to see how he will cope with the other dominant guards the league has to offer such as Kyles Lao, Thomas Torres, Nico Javelona, and even several of his Ateneo teammates.

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The Nieto twins are just two of an interesting crop of rookies.(Photo Credit: Arvin Lim, SlamOnline.ph)

Similar to Mike Nieto, National University’s Mark Dyke will also be making a transition from a dominant low post big man to a versatile forward. The NU Bullpups’ star big man who has loosely comitted to staying in NU for college has similar expectations to Ateneo’s Mike Nieto. Although both will make similar transitions, there is one key difference. Nieto spent his final year of high school away from the post to make way for Ateneo’s younger big men such as Shaun Ildefonso and BJ Andrade. He has worked in his free time to sharpen up his ball handling skills and outside shooting to prepare himself for college. His change in style of play was seen and executed perfectly throughout his MVP season. Dyke on the other hand continued to play as a big man with his strengths coming from rebounding and put-back baskets. It will exciting to see what new and unseen skills Dyke will display as he changes positions for his college years. A former teammate of Dyke’s, Philip Manalang, will make his debut for the UE Red Warriors and, similar to Matthew Nieto, will also have to combat the other big-name guards of the league.

The aforementioned names have been highly-scouted due to their years in the Juniors division and multiple finals appearances. This, of course, takes nothing away from the other rookies who also aim of leaving a mark. This season is bound to also showcase the “unknown” rookies who may just be Philippine basketball’s next household names. In the eyes of many, all rookies are equal and given equal opportunities to prove themselves worthy. It is only a matter of whether they will step up to the challenge.

3. Unfinished Business

With the closing of Season 77, fans were treated to a season filled with unexpected twists and turns. The most notable occurrence was the unexpected Finals matchup between the National University Bulldogs and Far Eastern University Tamaraws, in which NU brought home the gold for the first time in 60 years. Fans also saw the emergence of FEU’s Mac Belo, a versatile forward who unexpectedly rose to the ranks with a whopping 16.1 PPG and 2.5 APG. His numbers had improved dramatically from his first two seasons, earning him a spot in the Mythical Five. To top it all off, he has also provided the fans with key highlight moments from his trademark two-handed dunks. This upcoming season, Belo will be accompanied by trusty veterans the likes of Mike Tolomia, Roger Pogoy, and Raymar Jose along with FEU-FERN Baby Tamaraws standouts Wendel Comboy and Brandrey Bienes. With a bitter loss in last season’s finals, fans will have high expectations of what FEU will bring to the table to avenge their defeat at the hands of the Bulldogs.

Similar to FEU, other teams also have unfinished business from the seasons prior. The UE Red Warriors, for instance, were one win away from a spot in the Final Four but were eliminated by the eventual champions. With the departure of imports Charles Mammie and Moustapha Arafat as well as the former face of the team, Roi Sumang, the Red Warriors seem to be at a rebuilding stage. Yet, with veterans such as Chris Javier and Ronnie de Leon still in the mix, the Recto-based squad still has a lot to offer for a possible championship run. Perennial championship contenders such as the De La Salle Green University Archers, the Ateneo de Manila University Blue Eagles, and the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers will have similar missions to prove themselves worthy of being back at the top of the league.

4. The Unpredictable Storylines

Last season’s UAAP saw the rise of dramatic matchups and events that took everyone by storm. With the most unpredictable clashes between two ball clubs to the emotions unleashed with every basket, Season 77 has produced stories for the ages all told within the confines of the basketball court.

Naturally, several of the stroylines revolved around the defending champs NU Bulldogs. Last season, the Blue Eagles were the clear favorites by many to win the championship. Standing as the top seed of the league with a record of 11-3 in the elimination round, accompanied by the Rookie of the Year Arvin Tolentino as their rising star, and two Mythical Five members namely Chris Newsome and Kiefer Ravena with the latter also being the league’s MVP, the Katipunan-based squad seemed unstoppable. That is until they were pit against National University. With four of their five total losses coming from the eventual champions, NU was Ateneo’s biggest obstacle. Overcoming Ateneo’s twice-to-beat advantage in the Final Four, the Bulldogs steamrolled their way to the championship led by the dominance of star import Alfred Aroga and the playmaking abilities of their guards such as Nico Javelona and Glenn Khobuntin. Some dubbed this rivalry as “The Rich vs. The Common Man” wherein the known comfortable lifestyle of Ateneo students fell to the more blue collar lifestyles of NU students. Some have even gone as far as to say that this rivalry is an ample representation of today’s society in which those separated by economic status have constantly clashed with one another.

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Can Ravena and company break their losing streak against the NU Bulldogs? (Photo Credit: Rivals.ph)

After upsetting the Blue Eagles in the Final Four, the NU Bulldogs advanced to the Finals against the FEU Tamaraws that had just dethroned Season 76 champions, the DLSU Green Archers in the other Final Four series. Having dethroned both Ateneo and DLSU in their respective Final Four series, the so-called “blue collar” schools have prevailed victorious and the Finals series was to determine who among the two schools was able to grind out more to win the championship. Last season’s Finals series was also the first time in a very long time that neither Ateneo, La Salle, nor UST, three of the more known schools with wealthy backgrounds, competed for the championship. This turn of events can be considered as the breaking of the barrier that separates society based on material wealth and proof that any goal can be reached by any individual regardless of wealth and economic background.

NU UAAP 77 Champs Photo Credit: GMA Network (http://images.gmanews.tv/v3/webpics/v3/2014/10/2014_10_15_19_03_51.jpg)
The fourth-seeded NU Bulldogs emerged as the UAAP S77 champs. Can they defend it? (Photo Credit: GMA Network)

With all the light being shone onto the championship contenders, the teams at the bottom of the league have also shown that they are not to be forgotten. The Adamson University Soaring Falcons and University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons have consistently been at the bottom of the standings for the past years with both struggling to get even a single win majority of the time. Last season, during their last game in the first round of the eliminations, Adamson and UP squared off in what was a battle of two teams desperate to taste victory after so long. At the end of the game, the Fighting Maroons, after 27 straight losses dating back to seasons prior, came out on top, giving them their first win in nearly two years. The UP fans could not have been any more excited and even threw a bonfire inside the Diliman campus to celebrate the long-awaited win. This, however, would be their first and last for the season. In their next meeting,  they were defeated by then 0-13 Soaring Falcons that avoided a winless season. Although some may view this rivalry as comical, one can only imagine the emotional pain and hunger these players had to endure for so long. This goes to show that even the underdogs, those who seem to have nothing to gain, are just as hungry for victory as those who have always been on top. These two squads may even serve as inspirations to young athletes to continue to be hungry for victory despite all the odds that may hinder them form their goals.

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The UP Fighting Maroons will look forward to more wins after breaking their losing streak last season. (Photo Credit: Rey Afable, SLAM Philippines)

These stories, accompanied by many more, are what gave Season 77 its unique flavor and produced unforgettable memories for the ages. With the next season just around the corner, one can only imagine what new storylines and changes will be brought upon by the seven hopeful UAAP teams. Season 78 will be hosted by the University of the Philippines in what will surely be an exciting season. Only time will tell what the basketball gods have in store.