Continuity has proven time and time again to be a crucial component in the success of any basketball team. The individual talents of the players on a roster coupled with the tacticians of even the best coaching staffs often fail to win championships when not bred together for a significant amount of time.
A well-known example of the failure due to lack of continuity was the 2010-2011 Miami “Not one, not two, not three…” Heat. LeBron’s Big Three with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could only muster up a disappointing loss to the underdog Mavs in the 2011 Finals. The Heat would eventually waltz past the Thunder to win the title a year later, but not without Wade admitting that he had to “take a step back” to allow LeBron James to be the outright alphadog of the team. It’s realizations such as Wade’s that show the value that continuity provides in a team environment. And continuity, or lack thereof, will definitely be a prevailing theme that will dictate the outcome of the upcoming UAAP season.
In the UAAP, continuity is polarizing, given its nature as a collegiate basketball league. While recruiting blue chip prospects may assure a team success for a 4-5 year span, the reality is that building around players with finite life spans means that any form of year-to-year continuity is incredibly valuable. For instance, the UST Growling Tigers are coming off a last place finish, a far cry from the UAAP Finals appearance of a team that featured the likes of Kevin Ferrer and Ed Daquioag just two years prior.
Recruiting plays a major role in the progression of teams through the years. But entering Season 81, there is no Ben Mbala, Kiefer Ravena or Ricci Rivero-level recruit or transferee. In-house improvement will be critical in determining who will bring home the title in early December.
While a clear cut favorite is perched atop the league entering this year, the middle of the pack features a bunch of teams looking to replicate last year’s champions by jumping from good to great via roster continuity. Meanwhile, it’s the uncertainty surrounding the new and unproven pieces that ties together the likely cellar dwellers and biggest wildcard of Season 81.
I guess I’ve made it clear by now a major reason for how I determined these rankings, so let me get to it. Here is a closer look at how each team stacks against the field in the preseason edition of the UAAP Power Rankings.
1.Ateneo Blue Eagles (Last Season: 13-1, 1st)
There’s no real doubt about this one. The defending champion Ateneo Blue Eagles are fresh off an offseason that saw them sweep through the FilOil Flying V Preseason Cup, win the inaugural SMART City Hoops basketball championship, fly to Greece to battle a bunch of club teams (One of their wins was against Greece’s U21 National Team), and post an impressive 4th place finish in the William Jones Cup in Taiwan. In other words, Ateneo, a team that registered a +13.3 point differential last season, seems like they may have improved entering the new season.
Ateneo’s returnees feature last year’s MVP Runner-Up Thirdy Ravena, as well as two-way point guard stud Matt Nieto. The return of Adrian Wong from a torn ACL injury, as well as the acquisition of UAAP Juniors Mythical Five member SJ Belangel will only add to the already potent bench (1st in Bench Points). The Blue Eagles’ major losses were to their frontline, as both Vince Tolentino and Chibueze Ikeh graduated. However, Raffy Verano looks primed to replace Tolentino, while Ivory Coast import Angelo Kouame looks like an upgrade based off of preseason action.
All signs point the to the Tab Baldwin-led squad repeating as champions this season. The Blue Eagles have most of their army back, with weapons at all positions and the defensive discipline to boot. However, it’s way too early to anoint them with the crown right away. Any team can come out of the blue and shock Ateneo, who was just an Isaac Go missed three away from relinquishing their storybook season to the…
2. Far Eastern University Tamaraws (Last Season: 7-7, 4th)
The FEU Tamaraws flew under the radar in the offseason. There were no trips abroad or high profile acquisitions, and neither did they have any controversial player or coach departures. The team even lost its best perimeter defender and team leader in Ron Dennison, and their biggest acquisitions are a pair of former Baby Tamaraws in L-Jay Gonzales and RJ Abarrientos. Yet, despite only qualifying for last season’s Final Four on the final weekend of the elimination round, FEU is arguably Ateneo’s stiffest competition entering Season 80.
But the Tamaraws seem like the rest of the field’s best match-up against the defending champions. Their near-upset of the eventual champions in the Final Four round has definitely left a strong impression entering the new year. They finished 3rd in the FilOil Preseason Tourney and 2nd in the SMART City Hoops Tournament, falling short in both due to competitive losses to Ateneo.
Jasper Parker seems poised to enter star territory, while Arvin Tolentino and Hubert Cani are hoping to fully rewrite their college stories. Olsen Racela’s tutelage also cannot be ignored, and his Final Four masterpiece last season may have been one of the rare times Tab Baldwin has been out-coached in his long career.
Don’t sleep on the Tamaraws. They may very well make a bigger jump than most expect in Season 81.
3. Adamson Soaring Falcons (Last Season: 9-5, 3rd)
While the Adamson Falcons have made the Final Four in consecutive seasons (the first time since the Ken Bono era of 2010-2011), they’ve been dispatched both times by the Mbala-led Green Archers. With the jury still out on the legitimacy of the field outside of Ateneo, this is the perfect chance for the Falcons to end their 26-year UAAP Finals drought.
However, the team is not without their own question marks. They were a middle of the road offensive team, struggling to produce points (5th in Offensive Rating). The loss of Robbie Manalang will also leave a mark on their floor spacing, as Manalang knocked in 26% of the total threes the team made last season. Adamson also lost a pair of Fil-Am reserves in Tyrus Hill and Kurt Lojera, which has left them with a much thinner bench mob.
Still, looking at the roster and the team’s consistency over the past few seasons, lead wing pieces Jerrick Ahanmisi and Sean Manganti have already declared that they expect to make the Finals this year. For Adamson fans, this preseason swagger from Ahanmisi is a welcome sign, as they are hoping for a lot more aggressiveness from their occasionally passive star guard. Meanwhile, Manganti is set to jump a few rungs in terms of his role on the team, with many pundits already placing him in the conversation as a dark horse MVP candidate. The team also still has the services of veterans Jerie Pingoy and Papi Sarr, who will challenge UP’s Bright Akhuetie and Ateneo’s Kouame as the league’s best import.
With a bunch of high profile recruits set to enter the UAAP for several teams in Season 82, Adamson has to take advantage of their huge opportunity in the upcoming season. If the cards fall right for Franz Pumaren and Co., a pair of bluebirds may be duking it out for the crown in December.
4. De La Salle Green Archers (Last Season: 12-2, 2nd)
The Green Archers are tough to forecast this season. Their early offseason breakdown was well-documented: From the departure of two-time MVP Ben Mbala, to the transfer of Head Coach Aldin Ayo, to the controversial release of the Rivero brothers. Everything just fell apart for La Salle in a couple of months after their disappointing Finals loss to Ateneo.
But after the consecutive haymakers, the Green Archers will be ready to fight in Season 81. The current roster is still oozing with talent, and will have proven assistant-turned-head coach Louie Gonzales to steer them in the proper direction. The backcourt rotation of Aljun Melecio, Jollo Go, Andrei Caracut and Kib Montalbo is still the envy of most of the league. Fil-Foreigners Taane Samuel and Brandon Bates will be paired with Santi Santillan and Justine Baltazar, and the quartet will make a worthy attempt at filling in the hole in the middle left by Mbala.
In the end, it’s difficult to picture the Final Four without the Green Archers, especially considering their talent. They have a ceiling as high as posing as a true challenger to Ateneo, but could also find themselves in the outside looking when the Final Four comes. I’ll go with the safe choice here, and put them right in the middle of the pack.
5. University of the Philippines Fighting Maroons (Last Season: 6-8, 5th)
I can feel the wave of hate coming from the UP fans. Don’t worry, I understand. This is supposed to be the year that they finally break into the Final Four for the first time in over 20 years. They were also just one win away from forcing a tiebreaker last year, added more pieces than FEU and Adamson, and expect a steep decline from La Salle. Bright Akhuetie and NCAA Jrs MVP Will Gozum are suiting up, the GDL boys are another year older and more developed, and Paul Desiderio is ready to go out with a bang. This is supposed to be their year.
And it just might be. MIGHT. I actually toyed with the idea of putting them above La Salle, but found it too difficult to put the Maroons ahead of the perennial powerhouse. Forgive me for still worrying about a Bo Perasol offense (6th in Offensive Rating, Last in FG% in Season 80) running a team that may have the most pressure to succeed outside of their Katipunan counterparts.
But the talent is available for UP to definitely make a run at the Final Four, and perhaps even flirt with twice-to-beat advantage, if I may dare say. Even with the pressure on, King Maroon Paul Desiderio has also never seemed to be afraid of the moment, and neither has his heir Juan Gomez De Liano. Look for the duo to spearhead the Maroons’ massive pursuit of a Final Four birth in what may be the most interesting storyline of Season 81, one way or another.
6. National University Bulldogs (Last Season: 5-9, 6th)
Speaking of interesting storylines, the NU Bulldogs are another team that will be worth watching. The Bulldogs are just four years removed from the title, but the expectations left behind by the ghosts of former stars like Alfred Aroga and Troy Rosario may have finally graduated alongside JJay Alejandro. This year, the Bulldogs kickstart their rebuild with a youth movement that includes 9 new players on the team.
NU will be rebuilding on the shoulders of group of athletic youngsters that features former star bullpup John Lloyd Clemente, as well as the sons of NU Legend Danny Ildefonso’s. Clemente will make his much-awaited debut for the NU Seniors Team, and he’s been touted as a UAAP-ready prospect for over two seasons already. On the other hand, UAAP Juniors Mythical Five member Dave Ildefonso is coming off an impressive showing at the FIBA U17 World Cup with Gilas. He’ll also have his brother, Shaun, right by his side, who made also made the move from Ateneo to NU after playing sparingly for the Blue Eagles in Season 79. The Bulldogs also retooled their backcourt with the addition of Chiang Kai Shek gunner John Galinato, who will battle it out for minutes with Enzo Joson, Rev Diputado and Chino Mosqueda III.
Coach Jamike Jarin will have the tall task of grooming his youngsters for the future while also staying competitive this season. His experience coaching the Ateneo Blue Eaglets in the past will help him here, and number of his players in the junior ranks will once again play under the fiery head coach.
The Bulldogs will likely show a lot of their youth throughout the season, in more ways than one. Their quickness and athleticism will show up in spurts and keep them competitive enough to shock some teams. However, expect them to settle in closer to the bottom of the standings as the growing pains of development will show themselves at the end of the day.
7. University of Santo Tomas Growling Tigers (Last Season: 1-13, 8th)
No school is more excited to move past last year than UST. Not only did they finish dead last in Season 80, but they also set a school record for futility, with their lone win coming on the last day of the Elimination Rounds. There was also plenty of controversy and criticism surrounding former head coach Rodil Sablan, and a few key veterans decided against playing for the Tigers in Season 80. The rough season was evident even to the fans, as the often ruckus UST crowd was noticeably absent throughout the season.
But optimism has suddenly streamed into UST in the form of Mayhem. New Head Coach Aldin Ayo has made the jump from Taft to España and is bringing with him the Mayhem system that brought La Salle a title and two finals appearances in the same number of years. Renzo Subido and Mario ‘Embons’ Bonleon have also decided to don the Gold and White once again and will be welcome reinforcements to an offense that ranked second to last in the league last year. UAAP Jrs. MVP CJ Cansino will also be brought into the fray and could be the long-term building block the school needs.
UST and La Salle ranked 1 and 2 respectively in pace last season, so expect Aldin Ayo to come in and continue to let the team push the pace. This will make the Tigers an exciting team to watch in spite of their lack of big names. While the Final Four is likely a pipedream, being fast and exciting should be a huge jump overall compared to last year, no matter what the final win count may be.
8. University of the East Red Warriors (Last Season: 3-11, 7th)
The last decade has not been kind to the Red Warriors, who’ve missed the Final Four every year since their 2009 Finals loss to Ateneo. The most notable stretch of years since were a bunch of Roi Sumang-led teams that, due to suspensions and poor late game execution, always seemed to fall short of the playoffs. However, with the lack of the talent on the roster this year, Season 81 may not be any different.
Returning for the team will be Alvin ‘Air Sambokojin’ Pasaol, whose presence alone may classify the Red Warriors as the UAAP’s version of an NBA League Pass Team. Philip Manalang is also back to run point, with shooter Mark Maloles at the wing. However, the team lacks any major recruits for this season, and also lost the services of Mark Olayon due to graduation.
Still, new Head Coach Joe Silva, who is fresh off a championship season with the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, has his sights set on developing the team while trying to remain competitive. Silva looks to instill a culture of discipline, especially on the defensive end, which is important for less skilled teams to make noise in the league.
The team does have some momentum which they could bring into the UAAP season, as they’re coming off a championship run in the BK Squad Invitational in Taiwan. But with the way things are looking in the big picture, the Red Warriors should mostly look at this year as a developmental year. Lucky for them, reinforcements look to already be in tow to partner with Alvin Pasaol in Season 82.