With the Philippine Collegiate Championship League (PCCL) entering its semi-finals phase, we were given a chance to see teams from both the UAAP and the NCAA go up against one another in what was dubbed the “UAAP-NCAA Challenge”. Sporting lineups that they will be running within the next season of their respective tournaments, the clash of leagues was a good opportunity for fans to see who will be the big names when college hoops season comes around again. From the champions Ateneo Blue Eagles and Letran Knights, and the runners-up UST Growling Tigers and San Beda Red Lions, here are some of the players that impressed in the UAAP-NCAA Challenge:

SJ Belangel, Ateneo Blue Eagles

If we had to crown an MVP for the UAAP-NCAA challenge, the easy choice would be Belangel. The averages speak for themselves: 20.3 points, 2.7 assists, 4 threes, all of which he accumulated in roughly 18.7 minutes per game. He was a Human Torch for the Blue Eagles, going red hot from the field at the snap of his finger; the go-to guy they needed after the departure of seniors Thirdy Ravena and Matt Nieto.

What was most striking with Belangel was his approach to the game. From being the timid freshman who was pressed to death by the Adamson Soaring Falcons, he has transformed into a brash, and fiery leader who demands the ball when the pressure amps up.

Defending him has turned into a nearly unsolvable puzzle. Defenders can’t go under screens anymore; he’s going to burn them when he pulls up from three. Try to double him and he’s bound to find the open man. Defend too close, he’s quick enough to beat his man off the dribble.

It’s still early into the year, but it isn’t crazy to say a new Agent Zero is in town for Ateneo. He may not be the same physical specimen Thirdy Ravena is, but SJ is starting to make a strong case as the next King Eagle for Ateneo.

Troy Mallillin, Ateneo Blue Eagles

A lot of people expected Troy (or Chakoy as he’s referred to within the team) to make a leap after the departure of Thirdy and he showed glimpses of increased production during the mini tournament. In roughly 13 minutes per game, he came out with averages of 10 points and 4.3 rebounds. But the numbers only scratch the surface of how impressive Troy was.

Troy’s play showed us he isn’t going to be anything like Thirdy. It all starts with their foundation as players. Thirdy was a versatile, all-around playmaker in High School while Troy was a physical force who feasted as an off-ball option in open space.

Troy did not try to be the dominant ball-handler or playmaker Thirdy was. While he had a nice assist to Will Navarro versus Letran (3-4 pick and rolls are here to stay), what was eye-catching in his game was his improved movement and shooting. He looked comfortable playing as an off-ball option not just for cuts to the rim but also for curls to the three-point line. There was no awkwardness to his movement. It seemed natural to him.

That may be testament to how good Tab Baldwin’s developmental program is. Troy isn’t the next Thirdy others envisioned him to be the moment he entered the Blue Eagles in Season 80. But a leap, in the most Chakoy way possible, is certainly coming.

Calvin Oftana, San Beda Red Lions

It’s funny to think that a league MVP can still find ways to impress us. When you win such a prestigious award, greatness should be expected, right?

The stakes have been raised when it comes to Calvin Oftana, but his game has also followed suit. It all starts with the departure of their lead point guard, Evan Nelle.

Losing Nelle meant for the first time in forever, they were lacking a true point guard to lead their team. San Beda has always been known for their playmakers. From Baser Amer, to Robert Bolick, and eventually Nelle, the Red Lions have been a den for great point guards.

The upcoming NCAA season poses as a new challenge for the Red Lions and it looks like Oftana is ready to take on the cudgels as one of San Beda’s main playmakers. His scoring and rebounding are given. But a pleasant surprise was his playmaking. Averaging 4.3 assists per game is no joke. That’s a testament to his versatility as a basketball player and his sheer talent.

The Red Lions face uncertain times. From no longer having a foreign-student athlete in their team to not having a dominant playmaker anymore, it truly is a new era in Mendiola. But there are also things which stay the same. For them, that’s Calvin Oftana. He remains inevitable and it also looks like he just got better.

Kemark Carino, San Beda Red Lions

The Red Lions have long been criticized for supposedly relying too much on their foreign-student athletes. It started with the arrival of Sam Ekwe and it was continued by the runs of Sudan Daniel, Ola Adeogun, Arnaud Noah, and Donald Tankoua. Multiple rings were won and with it came an imaginary asterisk haters love to attach to the Red Lions.

Now the Red Lions no longer have that option of “relying” on a foreign-student athlete. Does this mean their immediately about to fall from grace? Most importantly, who will they rely on to handle the likes of Larry Muyang in the NCAA?

Enter Kemark Carino who has been touted as a project for God knows how long now. He has been very polarizing for many observers. Others have raved about his upside, while there are those who critique his inability to gain muscle. He had his moments during the last two years with San Beda, but that’s all they were, moments. To be truly great, you need to have consistent play that translates to big shots or plays when the moment calls for it.

Thankfully for San Beda, the lanky big man showed flashes of improved play and confidence. His three-point shooting was a welcome development during the course of the tournament and it looks like he’s learning how to use his length properly.

Questions are still aplenty regarding San Beda’s big man situation. For the most part, Kemark still looks more like a project rather than a finished product. But to his credit, this is the closest he’s looked to being polished. There’s no way to view that other than as a win for the San Beda faithful.

CJ Cansino, UST Growling Tigers

Others may be quick to judge this run of the UST Growling Tigers are underwhelming. They only won one game during the tournament while their players performed sub-par for the most part. But if they needed a silver lining to remember as this off-season passes by, look no further than their captain, CJ Cansino.

For most of Season 82, Cansino looked very hesitant and conscious of his movements. This isn’t surprising, especially since he did just come back from an ACL injury. His mind clearly wanted him to perform certain feats, but his body could not follow just yet. It was a struggle for the former UAAP Juniors MVP.

Slowly but surely, it’s looking like CJ is coming back into his own. It was particularly evident during this tournament, as his overall movement has improved compared to last year. He looks quicker moving off the ball and his shot looks more compact. Most impressive has been his forays to the rim. He’s been attacking fearlessly, and his speed looks apparent once again.

Here’s more good news for UST fans: it’s just the start of the off-season. So much more can happen with regards to CJ’s game. If UST wants to win a ring this year, they definitely need CJ at his best.