By Frankie Serrano

Entering the season, University of Santo Tomas was one of the teams I pegged as potential Finals contenders. But their past games have quite exposed the Growling Tigers in more ways than one.

Have the Tigers peaked? Or can they shift into a higher gear?

Soulemane Chabi Yo, Mark Nonoy, and Rhenz Abando have had blistering starts to the season. Nonoy and Abando were scintillating as well, taking turns in punishing teams with their smart and explosive two-way play. This was especially evident versus defending champions Ateneo Blue Eagles, where all three newcomers took turns in having their own moments.

However, in the games since, UST seems to have fallen off quite a bit, getting Val Chauca-ed, having a close shave with the FEU Tamaraws, and ending with that shocker of a rout against the DLSU Green Archers.

They still boast of the most explosive offense in the league (81ppg) despite the garbage end to the first round. Add to that, they still are second-best in categories like bench scoring (32.3ppg), rebounds (49.1rpg), three point shooting (30.04% 3FG), and second-chance points (18.1ppg)

But here’s the deal: as much as they are an offensive juggernaut, they could not defend to save their lives, especially at the rim, ranking second to worst in defense (77.1ppg allowed) and blocks (3bpg). As much as the Tigers can turn into flame throwers, they cannot stop anyone, especially when the opposing team has a skilled big man who can move (sorry Bright) around Chabi Yo down the blocks like Ange Kouame, Justine Baltazar, and to an extent, the likes of Barkley Ebona and Alex Diakhite.

It doesn’t help at all that throughout this season, we have yet to feel CJ Cansino.

He’s the King Tiger! And it’s as if they are controlling his play at every turn. Granted, he’s coming off an ACL injury. But if you’re confident enough to put him in the lineup, why does it feel like he’s being held back? Or is he saving himself for the stretch run? Right now, I need to see more of Cansino asserting himself on offense despite the presence of Chabi Yo, Nonoy, and Abando. He’s only averaging 4.3ppg, 5rpg, and 1.7spg while shooting a horrid 34.4% from the floor and being wholly deferential. He’s being outscored by the likes of Brent Paraiso, Renzo Subido, and even Sherwin Concepcion.

Then there’s Abando, who entered the season with much hype, which he proved to be warranted during the start of the first round. He absolutely killed UP in what is UST’s biggest win to date. But he has tapered off slightly, going inconsistent in his next outings, which rounded out to a 13.4ppg, 4.6rpg, and a combined 1.8 average for blocks and steals.

These two are tantamount to the Growling Tigers ending the Final Four drought more than Chabi Yo pulling in monster game in and game out. With only one barrel performing, you really can’t do scrat against a top tier team in Ateneo, and might even bottom out against a DLSU squad that is slowly figuring itself out under Jermaine Byrd.

Clearly, the Tigers’ roster is quite balanced. Despite being handicapped for size at the rim, they make up for it with speed and versatility to counter the projected disadvantages. But they haven’t been utilized as I envisioned them, and sorry for that quip Papa Guns. If you look closely, they have at their disposal apart from the four guys I mentioned: Subido, Paraiso (surprisingly!), Ira Bataller, Dave Ando, stud freshman Concepcion, and Zach Huang, who probably is the most bruising Growling Tiger on the team.

That’s a lot of weapons Aldin Ayo can utilize but he gets cute sometimes throwing lineups which look like Battaler, Ando, Subido, Paraiso, and either Abando or Nonoy. At times, I don’t even see Chabi Yo running with Huang, with the exception of the Ateneo game, and it can definitely take some workload off Chabi Yo.

Hypothetically, UST’s best five is playing Cansino at point, flanked by Nonoy and Abando, with Concepcion and Chabi Yo bring up the front. I tell you, Cansino at the point is what UP is trying to do with Ricci running point. Cansino getting more looks at the basket will surely open things up more for the Growling Tigers when the second round rolls around, put him in ball screen situations with Chabi Yo or Concepcion instead of running him off hand-offs and staggered brush screens.

UST at this point should accept the fact that despite the Mayhem tag on Aldin Ayo’s defensive philosophy, they cannot defend anyone when it comes to it. Their best defense remains to be offense, as they can shoot the lights out on any given day with Abando, Nonoy, Concepcion, Paraiso and Subido unholstering their rifles.

In a way, it’s a reiteration of the 7SOL Phoenix Suns. Put the ball in Cansino’s hands and stop being cute with all those hand offs. You aren’t Ateneo. You are UST. You are Aldin Ayo and not Tab Baldwin. You like to give your guards the green light. You like to run them in ball screens, find creases, and relocate to an open three.

You have CJ Cansino, who can play four positions, with a high basketball IQ, and absolutely one of the smoothest slashers I have ever witnessed in college basketball. Capitalize on that. Again, stop being cute.

This could be the key to finding the higher gear the Growling Tigers need to crank to if they want to really dispose UP from the second-place spot and earn a date with Ateneo in the Finals this year.