For the past 15 years, the Ateneo basketball program could be described in one word: consistency. You could easily say that “dominance” or “championships” would be more suitable terms, but given the struggle the Blue Eagles went through for championships during the early 2000’s, consistency seems like a more apt word. Given the consistency they have shown the past few years, failure was an awkward sight to behold. Sadly, for the fans of the Hail Mary squad, they had to lay witness to failure, in the form of an exclusion from the Final Four in Season 76.
After that loss, Ateneo went MIA in the college basketball scene. Sure they got to catch some blue chip local recruits, but that was essentially it. No news of new imports joining the team, or even championships won in various local tournaments.
Little did we know, that time they went MIA, was already the start of a beautiful, yet mysterious story for the Ateneo Blue Eagles.
The Offseason Shrouded in Mystery
When the month of April swings by, it signals the start of college basketball. After all, the month of April is the month summer starts. Less classes for the players = more games for the fans. More games also meant that this was the time for (internet and legitimate) basketball analysts to nitpick the rookies that were recruited by the schools. Basketball enthusiasts were very excited to watch the blue chip recruits of the Blue Eagles, most notably rookies Arvin Tolentino and Thirdy Ravena. Sadly, us basketball enthusiasts would be left disappointed.
The Blue Eagles decided not to join any preseason tournaments in the local circuit such as the Fr. Martin Cup and the well-covered Filoil Flying V Preseason Tournament. Coach Bo Perasol cited “lack of chemistry” as the reason for declining the invitation to join the tourneys. In order to train, the Blue Eagles set off outside the Philippines, participating in training camps at the famed Impact Training Center, and at Japan and Korea.
A number of fans considered this as a coward move from the Blue Eagles. Some even went as far as saying that they just don’t want to look weak to opponents that’s why they decided not to join the said tourneys. Some fans considered this as a smart move for the Hail Mary squad, citing lack of scouting from opponents as an advantage for the Blue Eagles in the long run.
Time was ticking. The season was approaching. Little to no information was known of the Blue Eagles. Were the criticisms from the fans correct, or were some pundits spot on in stating that being mysterious would be a good move for the Katipunan-based team? It was time to find out.
A Start For The Ages
During the time of Coach Norman, dominant (read: unbeaten) first rounds were pretty much a prerequisite for Ateneo teams at that time. That also meant that Ateneans often acted as the demanding fans who showed little to no appreciation for the team’s efforts. It was pretty reasonable to place that much expectations on Norman Black teams. He had a complete team with talented bigs (Rabeh Al Hussaini, Nonoy Baclao, Greg Slaughter) and capable firepower in the perimeter (Chris Tiu, Eric Salamat, Nico Salva and Jai Reyes). For the Season 77 squad of Ateneo, fans didn’t place those kinds of gaudy expectations. The team didn’t really deserve such expectations because there wasn’t much to base off anyway. Little did we know that an explosion was about to take place.
Ateneo started the season with a rousing win against cellar dwellers Adamson. If you watched that game live, you noticed that fans sounded more determined in cheering compared to how they were during past seasons. The willingness and power to cheer were seemingly injected into the system of Ateneo fans. The same could be said for the Blue Eagles.
They started the season like a house on fire, showing their full artillery of weapons. The perimeter offense that was projected for them was spot on, with Von Pessumal, Chris Newsome and Nico Elorde providing ample support outside. The bigs also showcased their force inside, with Ponso Gotladera showing the ability to bang bodies. Two players stood out during this time, however.
Arvin Tolentino successfully put up with the hype that was placed on him before the season started. He showed the offensive skill that people expected of him, and it resulted into wins. The player that was the most impressive, however, is the King Eagle himself, Kiefer Ravena. People were worried that he lost a step. Well, it looked like he actually gained one.
Everything was going well for the Blue Eagles. Their core was playing to their roles, their monster rookie was playing like a monster, and the Phenom was well, phenomenal. Most importantly, critics were silent. Sadly, all this would eventually come to a halt.
Back To The Same Old Song And Dance
As I said, critics were pretty much silent after the first three games for Ateneo. Sadly, those critics were to return sooner than later.
The Blue Eagles lost to the NU Bulldogs last July 26, 2014 at the Mall Of Asia Arena. In that game, so much of the projected weaknesses for the Ateneo showed. First and foremost, the lack of quality bigs haunted the Eagles in this game. Troy Rosario and Alfred Aroga punished the Eagles down low. Also, the lack of depth of Ateneo showed against the Bulldogs. Kiefer went 3-of-20 in that game, and aside from Arvin Tolentino, no one really stepped up. Speaking of Tolentino, his defensive limitations were very evident in this game, as Rosario continuously burned him.
The critics were back. Ateneo was too reliant on Kiefer they said. Arvin can’t defend a rock they said. Hanggang simula lang naman sila they said. Ateneo won’t win anymore games they said.
Turns out someone took note of those criticisms.
All Hail King Clutch
In the long, colorful history of Ateneo basketball, a number of clutch baskets have been made by a number of players. When an Atenean hear the word “clutch”, chances are he will mention the name LA Tenorio. Some will also mention Gec Chia. Of course, the name Ryan Buenafe will be thrown around as well. Kiefer Ravena figures to join that long list of clutch Ateneans.
Long known for his game time heroics, Kiefer wanted to really cement his name in Ateneo basketball lore. What he did for the next three games were simply INSANE. Let’s me briefly recap these games.
Ateneo vs. FEU
Goes Assist Mamba mode during the first three quarters, then during the final canto, he weathers the FEU storm when he decided to go to what he is known as; Blue Mamba.
Ateneo vs. UST
Struggles the whole game and decides to do this;
Why you gotta be so rude, Kiefer. Why.
Ateneo vs. UE
Goes on a fishing expedition during the first half, then during the second half well..
All Hail King Clutch indeed.
It’s only been one round. Sure Ateneo may have started with a 6 – 1 record, but anything can happen in the UAAP. There are teams who have started 7 – 0 after the first round, yet they faltered in the next round and ended up with a worse record (for reference, see Season 76 FEU Tamaraws and Season 66 Ateneo Blue Eagles), and there are also those who went unbeaten during the second round after a lackluster opening round (see Season 76 De La Salle Green Archers). In short, Ateneo still can’t be so sure of themselves.
Ateneo’s been so reliant on its offense that it’s starting to worry a number of fans. After all, championship teams can’t win without a topnotch defense.
Stats pretty much prove this point. Ateneo may be registering monster offensive numbers, but at the same time, they’re defense is among the lower echelon in the league. Given how close they’re games have been, this should be a cause of concern for the team. Also, the lack of minutes for Ponso Gotladera has caused a stir around the Ateneo community.
No matter, in fact, the lack of an elite defense and a confusing center rotation may just be part of the continuing story of the Blue Eagles. The mystery continues for Team Ateneo, and so does their journey to the throne that was once theirs.
ONE BIG FIGHT!
All videos are courtesy of ABS CBN Sports and Action unless stated otherwise.