During the early goings of this UAAP season, the UP Fighting Maroons and the FEU Tamaraws both had trouble establishing their identities in the league. This shouldn’t have come off as a surprise considering how both teams were filled with new faces coming into the season. But frustration was still aplenty regarding the two. UP was criticized for their underwhelming wins despite their loaded talent pool. FEU, on the other hand, was bashed for their inconsistency. 

Things did not look good for either team as their first rounds came to a close. UP got blown out versus Ateneo, a testament to how winning close won’t cut it when facing the league’s best. FEU, on the other hand, lost by 22 points to an NU Bulldogs team that hadn’t won before that game.

Blowout losses like that make or break teams. It either forces you to wake up and work harder, or the sadness consumes you and paints a negative image of yourself in your mind when you move forward. UP and FEU needed to choose which path to take as this would define how the rest of their season would go.

The Cardiac Kids

It could have easily been a moment that broke the UP Fighting Maroons. Instead of gaining separation from the pack in the race for the second seed, the Fighting Maroons wound up losing a heart breaker against the UST Growling Tigers, 84-78, to fall with a 6-4 record. It was the perfect opportunity to silence doubters. Win versus a team that blew you out the previous round while creating distance between yourself and the rest of the pack. Instead, they were dragged down back to the logjam in the middle, with an incredibly bloody schedule facing them ahead then.

The moment UP lost its first game this season, the pressure cooker was already turned on. Critics immediately bashed their lack of chemistry and movement in their play, while accusing them of being shallow given their penchant for celebrating tight wins. 

Bat ba kayo tuwang tuwa? One point na nga lang panalo niyo kahit napakadami niyong magagaling na player.

That UST loss could have been something that exposed their holes and broke them. Maybe being happy with tight wins just won’t cut it. Maybe it was time to stop fooling themselves that they were fine with just winning games instead of winning convincingly. Maybe it was time for their true emotions to spill: frustration and anger over a supposedly underwhelming season, just like what the haters have been preaching since day one.

Call it underwhelming, shallow, or even disappointing. But the Fighting Maroons, despite all their holes as a basketball team, have done ONE thing incredibly well this entire season: swallowing the positive vibes, while spitting out whatever negative energy surrounds them. And believe it or not, it was most evident during that UST game which could have broken them.

Could have. But it didn’t. Instead, the game was a showcase of the identity they’d chosen to embrace.

It is true that UP has chemistry issues, specifically on the offensive end. Even Kobe Paras has pointed this out in a number of interviews with the media. So instead of forcing their offense to be something it can’t be at this point, they’ve instead focused their attention on defense, which can be more naturally integrated into their team given their personnel. 

UP is a team filled with athletes and gritty players. Aside from two high flyers in Kobe Paras and Ricci Rivero, players like Jaydee Tungcab, Noah Webb, and even Jun Manzo, can be found in their roster. Instead of turning themselves into some version of the USA Dream Team where they can throw each other alley-oops in every play, they’ve turned themselves into a Showtime version of the Grit N Grind Grizzlies. Their top-tier talent gives them that flair, while their role players allow them to drag teams to tight games.

There is one player, however, who can be classified as both top-tier talent and role player: Bright Akhuetie. Nothing much has changed with Bright’s style of play compared to last season. He still grabs rebounds, sets good picks, and gets occasional opportunities at points. The difference with Bright has been his actual value to the team. Last year, he didn’t feel as valuable because they ran so much of their action around Juan Gomez de Liano (their offense). But this year, since UP has amped up their commitment on defense, the value of Bright has been magnified even more. With apologies to Kobe Paras, Bright has truly cemented himself as the UP Fighting Maroons’ Most Valuable Player. 

His value lies with his ability to switch on defense. It’s one of the things which makes UP stand out; they’re one of the few teams in the league who can capably switch everything on defense without feeling like they’re left with a mismatch. Oftentimes, offenses attack the big man with their guards. You can’t do that with UP. Get Bright off a switch and you’re getting someone with incredibly nimble feet and arguably the league’s quickest hands. He averages a whopping 1.38 steals per game, good for second best in the league behind Adamson point guard Jerom Lastimosa. Imagine that: a CENTER who some have joked as fat has the second most steals in the UAAP. 

The rest of UP’s defense flows off Bright’s effort. Whatever Bright lacks in length for rim protection, UP makes up for by playing smart weak side. If Ateneo guards can gamble for steals because they have Angelo Kouame as their anchor, it’s the other way around for UP. Bright can gamble for steals on guards because if all else fails, his wings are long and athletic enough to protect the rim. It isn’t always pretty, but UP’s found a way to make it work.

That’s really how the UP Fighting Maroons have chosen to embrace themselves; a flawed group of players who make the most out of their talent by blending flair with grit. Most important above all is joy. Even when struggling or facing a monster run, rarely will you see the team shout at each other or resort to violent means. The incident between Coach Bo Perasol and the referees in last round’s Ateneo-UP game should be ultimate proof as to why UP should never resort to violence. Once they stop playing with joy, everything for them starts to blow up in their faces.

Plenty continue to doubt. Questions about their chemistry continue to linger. But UP has learned to spit that dirt out while swallowing whatever positives they can take in. For now, they celebrate a clinched twice-to-beat advantage in the UAAP postseason

Call them outrageous for throwing water at each other over a single victory. Maybe it really is ridiculous. But they could care less, because that kind of joy and energy they show is truly who they are.

The Brave (and Smart) Tamaraws

Before the UAAP season started, only ONE member of the Humblebola team predicted the FEU Tamaraws would make it to the Final Four (shoutout to Toby Pavon!). In hindsight, this felt disrespectful for a program that’s made it to the postseason SIX straight times already before this season. But there was reason for the doubt surrounding the Tamaraws. In a word: youth.

Expected to lead the team was LJay Gonzales; a talented yet flawed point guard who had much to learn before he could be heralded as elite. Even though players like Barkley Ebona and Wendell Comboy were seniors, they weren’t considered as go-to level players. They were better served as second or third options of an offense. That immediately meant the young LJay was projected to be the team’s go-to option. While his speed gave flashes of young Jayson Castro, his lack of a consistent jumper gave similar flashbacks. When FEU’s offense fails, could you count on Gonzales to bail you out even though his offensive game still lacked polish? 

The youth of the Tamaraws didn’t stop with LJay. During the offseason, they lost key veterans in Arvin Tolentino, Prince Orizu, and JR Parker. Replacing them were Xyrus Torres, Pat Tchuente, and Royce Alforque. While all three players had potential, it was difficult to imagine them contributing at a high level consistently.

To start the season, the youth of FEU showed itself. There were two FEU Tamaraws in display: the talented FEU team who looked like Finals contenders and the young FEU team who didn’t look like they could make it to the Final Four. This was most evident during the end of the 1st round when they lost by 22 points to NU, only to follow it up with an impressive double digit victory over Adamson. Thus the question: could the real FEU Tamaraws please stand up?

The talent was evident, that’s for sure. LJay looked like he was making the leap. Comboy was establishing himself as one of the league’s best shooting guards. Xyrus Torres was showing just how good of a shooter he was. But with those flashes of talent, were spurts of sluggish play. FEU’s offense would have dry spells which screamed worst offense in the league. LJay wouldn’t be able to shoot from anywhere. Wendell would be forced to play point guard. Xyrus would struggle to buy a basket. It was a frustrating back and forth affair FEU had with each other. Both sides of FEU even showed itself in a single game, when it nearly blew its win against the UP Fighting Maroons.

Versus the UST Growling Tigers in the second round, fans came in with the same question: which FEU Tamaraws team would we see tonight? The talented one that looked like Finals contenders, or the young one which tempted you to bash your head with how sluggish its offense looked? 

As the game rolled on, it felt like good FEU came to play as its offense did a good job of complementing its tight defense on the Growling Tigers. Their defense had always been a constant. Their ceiling has always been dependent on their scoring. They weren’t particularly elite versus UST yet it was enough to at least give them a chance to win. That was until the fourth quarter came, when good FEU decided to vanish.

The Tamaraws were done playing Jekyll and Hyde. They were done with being just good FEU. They were ready to make the leap to being great FEU. It was with this fourth quarter run where the Tamaraws began arguably the league’s most underrated Cinderella story in quite some time.

The FEU offense suddenly looked smooth come the final five minutes of its game against UST. The way the Tamaraws were scoring was exactly the way Coach Olsen Racela envisioned his FEU teams to be. It was a nice blend of dribble drive and triangle principles. Less dribbles, more passing and movement. By the end of the game, FEU found itself winning 72-58. In that moment, it felt a little bit flukey. In reality, it was a preview of things to come for the Tamaraws.

With the death of the Jekyll and Hyde Tamaraws came the birth of the Brave and Smart Tamaraws. The program has always screamed Be Brave as its motto. With a group of young players and determined veterans, it wasn’t surprising to see the team play with so much bravery. It’s the reason why their defense has been so stout; they’ve used their energy properly by playing tough defense on all the teams they go up against. But ever since that UST win, they’ve mixed in smarts to their toughness. It’s most evident with their offense while also spilling over to their defense.

The Tamaraws have kept things simple with its execution on offense. Less dribbles, more movement. They’ve maximized the slashing of their two young guards in LJay and Alforque and the rest of the team has followed suit. Wendell Comboy has been phenomenal, raising his stock as a potential PBA draftee. Even Pat Tchuente has joined in the fun, as he’s played splendidly ever since he’s focused on his role as a big man for the Tamaraws. Grab rebounds, block shots, score occasionally. It’s not always a pretty job, but Tchuente has embraced it wholeheartedly. 

Fast forward to the end of their elimination round and the FEU Tamaraws are making it to the Final Four. Most of the Humblebola team have been called out by FEU fans for doubting their team and reasonably so. They are indeed young. But the FEU Tamaraws are legitimately good; so good in fact that they’ve overcome their youth by playing with bravery AND smarts. They are an inspiring story through and through. The scary thing for the rest of the UAAP; they’re nowhere close to stopping and they can be so much better.