The PBA Philippine Cup has long been ruled by the San Miguel Beermen. They’ve been the league’s version of John Cena. Predictable but powerful. Hated but undeniably successful.

But then, the Beermen are now bloodied. Surrounding them is the rest of the PBA ready to cash in, all for the sake of the Philippine Cup.

This is the PBA’s Ultimate Opportunity.

Do you remember the last time the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok franchise last won the All-Filipino conference in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA)?

Apparently, it has been six long years since they last raised the Philippine Cup after the Finals. After winning the 2013 Governor’s Cup against the Petron Blaze Boosters (now the San Miguel Beermen), they followed it up with an All-Filipino title the following season – which kick-started their historic “Grand Slam” campaign under the legendary head coach, Tim Cone. Their winning days would eventually end as the team struggled to cope without Cone, who was transferred to arch rivals Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. 

Jason Webb – an assistant coach in the previous regime – was then promoted to head coach, but the team failed to come close to the accomplishments that they had under his predecessor. This led to Webb’s sacking after one full campaign and opened the doors to former Kia Sorento (now the Mahindra Enforcers) deputy head coach Chito Victolero to lead the team at the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Victolero had a respectable first season by entering the semi-final round in all three conferences, but then again, he did not produce any silverware – just like Webb. He and the Hotshots finally got over the hump when they defeated the Alaska Aces in the 2018 Governor’s Cup. It was a relief for the coaching staff, players and the fans as it looked like the franchise was ready to peak again. 

With momentum on their side, Magnolia was able to reach the 2019 Philippine Cup finals, but unfortunately for them, they failed to stop the rampaging Beermen. It was a missed opportunity for the Hotshots as they were one basket away from capturing their first All-Filipino title since 2014. The heart-breaking loss seemed to take a toll on the morale of the squad as they bowed out in both the quarter-final stage of the next two conferences.

Despite their collapse in the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup and 2019 Governor’s Cup, Magnolia is seen as the early favorites to win the 2020 Philippine Cup. Pretty weird right? Okay allow me explain.

Before the previous campaign ended, they acquired Chris Banchero from Alaska for Rodney Brondial and Robbie Herndon. The addition of the former fourth overall pick (2014) has solidified the already deep backcourt of the Hotshots – as they still have Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon, Paul Lee, and Justin Melton. Barring a trade (let’s say for a wing or big man), this five-man group can become the best backcourt in the league under Victolero, who loves to employ a three-guard line-up. With an embarrassment of riches at the guard position, he can even push Lee to the power forward spot and run a 4-out 1-in offense, leaving just one big man at the center position. 

The head coach will have a myriad of options to choose from; Marc Pingris is back after overcoming an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury, Rafi Reavis is still around, newly acquired big man Jackson Corpuz (traded for stretch big Aldrech Ramos to Mahindra) will provide tons of energy, Kyle Pascual will give serviceable minutes off the bench, and Ian Sangalang will look to continue to be that imposing post presence for Magnolia. 

Speaking of Sangalang, he has the opportunity to establish himself as the best big man this All-Filipino conference. He has been one of the most consistent performers with Victolero in charge. Sangalang’s post-game is smooth, his mid-range shot is reliable, and his rebounding ability is terrific. Sangalang just needs to play high-level basketball on a consistent basis and avoid the injury bug.

Sadly, a couple of contending teams are experiencing some injury problems – which could potentially increase Magnolia’s odds for an All-Filipino title. First is the five-peat Philippine Cup champions San Miguel. They won’t have June Mar Fajardo for the foreseeable future because the five-time reigning Most Valuable Player has suffered a complete fracture on his right tibia during their team practice. Sure, they will still have Alex Cabagnot, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Ross, and the rest of their championship core intact, but Fajardo is no doubt the most vital piece of the Beermen. Everything they do revolves around him.

Fajardo’s injury now puts the pressure on recently acquired (traded for Christian Stanhardinger during the 2019 Governor’s Cup) big man Moala Tautuaa to perform at an exceptional level. After an up-and-down three-year stint with the Talk N’ Text franchise, the American Filipino-Tongan has finally lived up to his draft stock while playing for the NorthPort Batang Pier. Tautuaa saw an uptick in his touches while playing for the Batang Pier as he was one of their main options, but now that he’s with a power house team yet again, can he replicate this kind of play with lesser touches? The second team having a problem similar to San Miguel is the Meralco Bolts. Raymond Almazan suffered an injury during the 2019 Governor’s Cup finals and literally played the last couple of games in the 2019 Governor’s Cup finals with one leg. His status now for the upcoming conference is still unknown. Even if he comes back, can he regain his scintillating form in a short period of time?

Funnily enough, arch rivals Barangay Ginebra San Miguel also boosts the Hotshots’ championship hopes. Their towering center, Greg Slaughter, recently announced on his Instagram account that he’ll “take a break” to “work on myself in all aspects”. It was an interesting decision made by the former Ateneo Blue Eagle as this leaves a massive hole in Barangay Ginebra’s rotation. Whether he was starting or coming off the bench, Slaughter was an absolute lock in getting minutes. And come on, he stands around seven-feet tall, so his mere presence on the court will surely be missed.

Just like Tautuaa in San Miguel, the load will now fall with reigning Governor’s Cup Finals MVP Japeth Aguilar. He has been playing spectacularly lately, but you can’t expect him to soak in heavy minutes at the center position and tire himself out even before the final buzzer sounds. Prince Caperal and Raymond Aguilar will now be needed to step-up and bang bodies in the paint.

The other teams, meanwhile, are going through a rebuilding process or are still trying to get out of mediocrity. In a conference where no tall imports are present, Magnolia definitely has the edge right now. For the first time in a long time, the frontcourt of the Hotshots is healthy to compete and at the same time, dominate for 48 minutes. On the other hand, their guard rotation is ridiculously deep. They have the talent, speed, and veteran savvy to outplay any backcourt match-up they are facing. The only question for the Hotshots is: are they hungry enough to redeem themselves and claim the franchise’s first ever Philippine Cup title since 2014? If not, then all of these “advantages” in the looming All-Filipino conference will be thrown away.