The formula for winning in the UAAP has stayed the same for the longest time– get prime talent, win titles. If you look at dynasties like the UST Growling Tigers, the La Salle Green Archers, and the Ateneo Blue Eagles (the Norman Black era), their teams were stacked with stars from 1-15.
The pandemic has made recruitment both easier and harder for coaches. For one, most provincial leagues announced that their seasons are canceled this year regardless of when this pandemic ends. This has led to talents heading to Manila to get more exposure to get to the next level. On the other hand, resources are scarce and quarantine restrictions make it hard to conduct face-to-face meetings with recruits to make a pitch.
The La Salle Green Archers fired the first shot by amassing recruits. UE followed suit, with new coach Jack Santiago. UST, with its promising roster, just bolstered the lineup with prime provincial talent from both the seniors and juniors division. Arguably, the winner of the recruiting wars was UP, securing the services of top high school prospects both in the Philippines and abroad (No, the ostrich is not counted).
Some say that these pieces are enough to contend for a title. Others say that these schools have recruited way too much. Meanwhile, the 4-peat seeking Ateneo Blue Eagles did not get anyone.
As of this moment, no one has heard of high school players being courted by coach Tab Baldwin. With the exception of the transfer of Dave Ildefonso, Ateneo hasn’t made much noise recruiting from the freshman class of 2020. This has led to many fans and alumni asking: What does the future hold for Ateneo?
Think of it this way: This is very comparable to Season 73, when it was a gap year between the Rabeh-Jai-Noy and the Greg-Kiefer era. The only difference is, this team is much stronger and are still favorites to win it all.
Let us take a look at the players who are waiting in the wings.
The comeback kids
Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza were two vital pieces for the Blue Eagles during the first two championships under coach Tab. Raffy was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense power forward with a nose for the ball. He knew where to position himself around the basket. Jolo was a spark plug torched the opponents at any given time.
While considered as veterans, the two returning players still have to earn their keep in this team. They do have one thing going for them; they are fits to Coach Tab’s system. Raffy can muscle for boards and can give hard picks, while Jolo is a proven winner with a Hall of Fame Limitless Range badge straight out of NBA 2K. Unlike high school rookies, they can contribute immediately.
A new band of brothers
As a set of brothers leave the league, a new one enters. Matt and Mike Nieto ended their collegiate careers on top and set the bar high for future recruits. Fortunately, Dwight and Eli Ramos have what it takes to fill the brothers’ shoes. Dwight is a legitimate Gilas candidate who can play the position Thirdy Ravena left behind. He is a do-it-all forward who does not need to score to contribute. He can excite casual fans and analysts alike with his hops and his efficiency. Although Dwight does not have Thirdy’s guard capabilities (at least not yet), he has the little things like a reliable jump shot and a high basketball IQ. Tell him to do something, and he will do exactly what you tell him. Eli is a big guard that can create mismatches when developed properly. Although he has to play behind SJ Belangel at this point, going against him in practice can give him a multitude of experience that can be an asset for the Blue Eagles in the long run. If Coach Norman’s magic is developing old school big men, Coach Tab’s excellence is best seen in developing modern players.
Tiger Cub turned Greenie turned Blue Eagle
Inand Fornillos has been a journeyman in his young basketball career. He was part of a UST Tiger Cubs team that also featured Season 80 MVP CJ Cansino. He won an NCAA juniors title with La Salle Greenhills with SLAM Rising Stars alumni Joel Cagulangan and Joshua David.
He’s found a new home in the Ateneo Blue Eagles. He has one asterisk, however; he played forward during his juniors career and he is being asked to transition to a wing player. While players like Ken Barracoso and Bacon Austria were not adept in their collegiate roles, there are players like Mike Nieto who make the transition seamlessly. His elite athleticism, however, is a good indicator of success. If there is a player you need to watch out for, make sure you do not sleep on this guy. I am riding the bandwagon early.
The future is now for the Eaglets turned Eagles
We do not need to look far to see that the Blue Eagles have a bright future ahead. Geo Chiu and Jason Credo may not have gotten significant burn last season, but they surely have infinitely larger roles soon as the season begins. Geo Chiu is a mobile center, and if he develops a three-point shot, he might be a better iteration of Isaac Go. If he is able to develop well into the role that was envisioned for him, Coach Tab has more leeway to play with certain lineups. Imagine Geo playing center and Ange Kouame playing the power forward spot.
Jason Credo is the unheralded fourth man in the Kai-SJ-Dave big three when they won the juniors title in Season 80. It is hard to truly define what position he plays, but this versatility comes in handy when playing for the Blue Eagles. If you match him up with shooting guards, he can bully his way to the rim and finish gracefully with a euro step that can leave defenders four feet away from either direction. If you slot him as a small forward, his basketball IQ and speed can smoke defenders. His defensive game is underrated, but he can develop that even further under the tutelage of team captain Gian Mamuyac.
Ateneo did not get any high school recruits this season. This has led fans and alumni to ask about the future of the Blue Eagles. I believe the better question is, with the current pool of talent available to the team, do they even have to recruit this offseason?
Don’t forget who the King of the Hill is. Best believe it’s going to be a rude awakening if you sleep on them.