It began when the Sampaloc-based squad kicked off their title defense in a loss to De La Salle University last September.

The Bulldogs allowed the Green Archers to run away with a 10-point lead in the first . Coach Eric Altamirano’s wards struggled to find offense outside their limited options in Gelo Alolino and Jjay Alejandro, who scored 16 and 15 points apiece. That their anchor Alfred Aroga could only manage nine points and 10 boards did little to help their cause.

The price to pay was defeat despite a rally in the endgame.

For a team that made history (they were the first fourth-seeded team that won the title in the Final Four era of the UAAP) last season with their team play and tough defense, such a performance just wouldn’t do.

It was only one game, sure, but it foreshadowed the kind of season the defending champs have had to trudge through. Their slow starts, scarce offense and hard luck have shoved them to the very edge of their throne. Even though NU was able to exact revenge on DLSU in the second round, the fate of the Bulldogs’ second title run rests atop shaky legs.

While falling into an early 0-3 hole and subsequently eking out a sub-.500 win percentage are by no means ideal–especially after hoisting the trophy one season ago–the Bulldogs have been here before. In Season 77, they beat the University of the East to claim the last Final Four slot and overcame the top-seeded Ateneo Blue Eagles (who, of course, had a twice-to-beat advantage) to eventually outlast the Far Eastern University Tamaraws in the finals.

Still, nothing’s stopping us from asking the head-scratcher: What the heck is going on?

Before anything else, let’s turn back the clock.

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The (Former) Top Dogs

With the departure of star guard Ray Parks, Jr. and center Emmanuel Mbe, who led National University to the top of the elimination rankings in Season 76 (their exit in the playoffs notwithstanding), analysts and sports fans alike colored in their predictions with shades of doubt regarding the team’s performance in the succeeding season. With no clear challenger in sight, the general consensus was that De La Salle was going to repeat, which, given that the Green Archers were pretty much intact coming into Season 77, is not difficult to understand.

The biggest missing pieces are Ray Parks and Emmanuel Mbe. That’s 33 points and 13 rebounds right there. Impact guys like Denice Villamor and Robin Roño are no longer eligible, while top power forward Jeff Javillonar will sit out the whole season due to a torn ACL. This NU team is clubbed and crippled. –Enzo Flojo

NU S76 Stats (Eliminations)
Offensive Rating
94.4 2nd
Defensive Rating
84.8 8th
Net Rating
9.6 1st
Effective Field Goal Percentage
43.0% 4th
Total Rebounding Rate
51.9% 2nd
Block Rate
5.5 7th
Points per game
70.5 5th

National University had the luxury of an outstanding offense and hulking defense, which explains why they were such a bully in the elimination rounds of Season 76. At this point, the Bulldogs were already reaping the benefits of Altamirano’s system and were a far cry from their cellar-dwelling selves. Though they were to eventually bow to the University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers in the semis, the Bulldogs had a taste of what it’s like to be at the top and the NU faithful must have been happy about the fresh but fleeting view.

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Ray Parks’ numbers: He was an all-around weapon for the Bulldogs.

With all the buzz surrounding Ray Parks’ arrival in the local college hoops scene, it’s fortunate that he lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations. He averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks in 2012–his second consecutive MVP year. To say that he helped pull the Bulldogs back to relevance is an understatement; he gave NU basketball a face and injected it with grit, swagger and aggression, as you can see in the highlights compilation video below (whoever produced this thing used a poorly edited U2 track as background music; I suggest you mute the audio and stream this instead):

Another factor that made NU a force to be reckoned with was Emmanuel Mbe. His interior presence was more than enough to intimidate opponents; finding mismatches on the offensive end hardly required effort. Because he was such an inside threat, he was able to help NU space the floor. He crashed both offensive and defensive boards with ease (he was seventh in the rebounding department in Season 76). He had the agility and finesse to go with his 6’8″ frame and could shoot from the perimeter. His last name is pretty badass, too.*

* It’s worth noting that he was a viable MVP candidate in his first year with the Bulldogs.

Emmanuel Mbe's numbers: He was an asset on both ends of the floor.

Emmanuel Mbe’s numbers: He was an asset on both ends of the floor.

Foil Characters to the Fore

Lost in all the talk about individual achievement is the quality of the supporting cast. With Parks and Mbe gone (not to mention Roño and Villamor), it was too easy to write off the Bulldogs’ erstwhile upsurge as a fluke. Well, maybe it was, but what people failed to realize during the time was that what remained was a cohesive team. Whatever the Bulldogs lost in star power, they more than made up for with their depth and collective identity.

NU was the top defensive team [in season 76]… That’s exactly what the Bulldogs need to continue now that they don’t have elite scorers anymore. As the proven hoops philosophy goes, good offense comes from good defense. –Paolo Mariano

NU S77 Stats (Eliminations)
Offensive Rating
87.6 5th
Defensive Rating
78.4 7th
Net Rating
9.2 2nd
Effective Field Goal Percentage
44.6% 3rd
Total Rebounding Rate
55.7 1st
Block Rate
9.7 1st
Points per game
64.1 5th

The first iteration of the post-Parks era Bulldogs was less flashy and tended to fly under the radar for a substantial part of the elimination rounds (National University almost didn’t make the Final Four, remember?) but the level of athleticism never waned and neither did its will. The team made a mission out of keeping the scoring low. NU’s grit-and-grind work ethic made games ugly–like watching-a-person-suffocate ugly–but it worked.

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Interestingly, they shot better from the field than in the previous season. There were times in Season 76 when NU would give the ball to Parks and allow him to create his own shot, which killed the team’s percentage from the field. Such isolation plays led to the Bulldogs’ downfall in the playoffs (they mustered a 38.3 eFG%, which was, well, awful). In Season 77, they were methodical in going about their offense; they would milk the shot clock by patiently running their half-court sets as initiated by the unflappable Gelo Alolino.

S77 Stats
Usage Rate
Total Rebounding Rate
Block Rate
Defensive Rating
Alfred Aroga
22.8% 17.6% 5.2%* 70.6
Henri Betayene
14.1% 17.0% 7.3%* 74.7
Glenn Khobuntin
21.9% 13.0% 0.2% 80.2
Troy Rosario
23.5% 15.0% 1.9% 76.1

* Respectively, Aroga and Betayene were the second and third top blockers in Season 77.

The hustle and muscle that forwards Glenn Khobuntin and Troy Rosario and centers Alfred Aroga and Henri Betayene provided cannot be emphasized enough when talking about the kind of basketball National U played that earned the school its first championship in sixty years. These guys were absolute bruisers, to say the least. Coupled with the above-average backcourt consisting of Alolino, Paolo Javelona and Jjay Alejandro, this was a team more complete and balanced than people gave them credit for.

Lean and (not as) Mean

NU S78 Stats (Eliminations)
Offensive Rating
84.3 5th
Defensive Rating
82.7 7th
Net Rating
1.6 4th
Effective Field Goal Percentage
41.5% 5th
Total Rebounding Rate
50.1% 5th
Block Rate
7.3% 5th
Points per game
65.8 7th

NU has fewer options to work with now that the likes of Khobuntin, Rosario and Betayene are out. One legitimate point for concern is Aroga; left with less help, he has had to double his efforts on offense and defense, which is exhausting and unsustainable. Despite the juggernaut that he is, Aroga can’t do it alone. Rookie back-up center Tzaddy Rangel has yet to figure out and get comfortable with his role but if the Bulldogs are to bring another championship home, he needs to grow up and contribute real quick.

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Paolo Javelona has been excellent at defending the one and two positions but his offensive game has taken a ridiculous nosedive this season. Going from 49.3 to 27.9 in eFG% and from an offensive rating of 96.8 to 73.3 have hurt his team. He’s making less assists, too. That he’s playing more minutes but producing less doesn’t add up since a player of his talent is supposed to get better with time. It could mean that he’s being forced to do more but for naught, which says more about the team than him. Hopefully, his coaching staff and teammates reward him for his defense by getting him open more open looks.

Reden Celda has also suffered a drop in his offensive numbers. He, too, is playing more minutes but his eFG% has fallen from 46.3 to 35.0. His offensive rating is down to 76.0 from 89.7. As for Jeff Javillonar, who now plays fewer minutes, has improved on defense. He’s still, however, showing signs of rust from his time off because his offensive rating has plummeted from 97.3 to 76.6. He’s also turning the ball over more (from 18.8 TOV%  to 29.9).

The guys mentioned above are pretty much veterans. They need to get out of their slump to get the offensive engine of NU running smoothly. On the bright side, Kyle Neypes and Rev Diputado have been steady. They have been delivering on both ends of the floor and hopefully, they do just as well in the future or even better. Regardless, they, along with Alolino and Alejandro, need help.

As a team, National University needs to solve its turnover problem. The Bulldogs have turned the ball over on 21.0% of their possessions–that’s second place in the league rankings, behind only the Adamson Soaring Falcons. Other teams have and will definitely keep capitalizing on NU’s mistakes; to avoid the Bulldogs’ wall-like defense, opponents will go fast and hard to the rim before the men in blue and gold can catch up in transition. This will not do. A title defense is not plausible if the defending champions can’t even take care of the ball.

Now that the Bulldogs have less muscles to flex, they need to rely on their smarts and fighting spirit and re-establish their identity to survive the stretch of games ahead. At this point, time is not on their side.

Will History Repeat Itself?

With the Bulldogs scrambling to preserve their season, they come face-to-face with a familiar kind of adversity. As tempting as it is to say that they’ll come out on top because they’ve done it before, a Cinderella Story is difficult to duplicate. That’s just the way it is. Several key players are graduating at the end of this school year and National U’s championship window is closing. But while it’s still ajar, these Bulldogs should hold fast, stay fierce and hungry.

If they play the right way, Lady Luck might take notice and smile upon the pack from Sampaloc one more time.