The preseason of the back-to-back champions Ateneo Blue Eagles for UAAP Season 82 was a complete 180 degree turn from the last season. Days after Cignal-Ateneo bagged the PBA D-League crown by defeating the heavily undermanned yet talented CEU Scorpions, they disappeared. Sure, it was publicized that they would be going to Greece for their annual preseason training, as well as joining pocket tournaments in Australia and Singapore, but all everyone has seen are snippets of highlights. No games to scout, no public appearances, no press conferences. In fact, the radar has been more focused on the runners-up than the defending champions. So what can we expect from the Ateneo Blue Eagles heading into UAAP season 82?
Honestly, I don’t know. Nobody does.
It would be so easy to end this preview right here, but it would not do the Blue Eagles justice. After all, the summer break is where the team goes into the Hyperbolic Tab Chamber. Let us make do with what information we have then, and let us analyze what the Ateneo Blue Eagles would bring to the table to annex their dominance in the league.
TEAM RECORD LAST SEASON: 12-2, beat FEU in the Final Four in one game, beat UP 2-0 in the Finals
KEY LOSSES: Anton Asistio, Raffy Verano, Jolo Mendoza, Aaron Black
Anton Asistio may not have eye-popping numbers on a per-game basis, but is one of the most valuable gunners of the Ateneo Blue Eagles. When defenses are focused on Ravena or Kouame, he is a viable third option the Blue Eagles have, spacing the floor and easing the pressure off Ateneo’s main scorers. Aaron Black is a backup guard who can handle the ball and score when the need arises, but was inexplicably used sparingly last season. Raffy Verano and Jolo Mendoza are out for the season due to academic issues, and were key cogs in the whole season. Raffy is a bruiser with range, a nose for the ball, and a good IQ, and Jolo is a lights out shooter who can relieve Anton in important spells of the game. Together, the Blue Eagles are losing about 22 points and seven rebounds per game. More than statistics, the team is losing a whole lot of intangibles that they provide. The Blue Eagles have to look at their bench to replace the personnel they lost. Study hard Raffy and Jolo, you’re needed for season 83.
KEY ADDITIONS: Geo Chiu, Jason Credo, Patrick Maagdenberg
Geo Chiu and Jason Credo were key pieces of the Season 80 Ateneo Blue Eaglets team that also featured Blue Eagle SJ Belangel, now NU Bulldog Dave Ildefonso, and future (I hope, THIS IS NOT A REPORT JUST A DREAM BY A FAN) Barcelona star Kai Sotto. Chiu was a backup center who had (at least) a similar imposing presence in the low block when Sotto was on the bench and Jason Credo was a do-it-all forward who could score and defend. These two know the Ateneo system, with Credo spending time with the team during their PCCL and D-League stints. Patrick Maagdenberg was supposed to play last season but passport issues barred any chances of that from happening. He had a solid showing in the Jones Cup and the preseason tournaments last season and will certainly add size to an already depleted big man lineup.
KEY RETURNEE: Troy Mallilin
It is very easy to say that Thirdy Ravena and Ange Kouame would be the cornerstones of the Blue Eagles’ title defense. In fact, it would be very reasonable to expect the majority of the output of the team will come from them. Unfortunately, two players do not make a team.
In the past, the small forward spot has been a been a weak point for the Blue Eagles. Only Thirdy and Mike Nieto have been alternating playing the position, compared to the multitude of guards that can make a security agency. With the return of former NCAA juniors MVP Troy Mallilin, the lineup is given additional depth. While Troy has only come back to competitive basketball fairly recently, we must remember that Troy is a natural athlete. In addition, he is the likely heir to the throne once the aforementioned Ravena and Nieto have graduated, so it might not be a stretch to say that Tab Baldwin is keeping an eye on this incoming sophomore a little more closely. After this experience, expect him to be mentally tougher.
KEY STAT FROM SEASON 81: 80.46 DRTG (1st in the league in season 81)
Ateneo is an exciting defensive monster disguised as a boring team. By boring, I mean the team plays impeccable FUNDAMENTAL defense. Unlike teams like Adamson and UST who will press and body you to oblivion from the jump ball to the final buzzer, Tab Baldwin’s idea of defense is restricting floor space rather than choking the ballhandler. Defensive lapses still come, but recovery and help are there faster than the fiery coach can yell at them. This has led to Ateneo giving up the least amount of points both per game (61.9 ppg) and per 100 possessions, regardless of pace (80.46). Every Blue Eagle in the lineup can play at least passable defense, an absolute non-negotiable when playing under Tab Baldwin’s system.
KEY QUESTION: Will Ateneo’s relative invisibility in the preseason help or hurt them?
As mentioned earlier, the only preseason tournament Ateneo joined was the PBA D-League. On one hand, this avoids the problem they had last season where Adamson jumped on them as early as the first game because too much of their game plan had been exposed. On the other hand, not playing in the local preseason tournaments can mean that the team is not exposed to their competition this season. You can defeat all the powerhouses all you want, but they are not the team you are facing when once the regular season rolls around (see: Chinese Taipei-Blue and the first round against Adamson). Who knows though, these Blue Eagles hardly leave anything to chance. This may be a smart move for them to take themselves off the radar.
X-FACTOR: BJ Andrade
This season, it will be BJ time.
The departure of Anton Asistio, Aaron Black, and Jolo Mendoza has opened up some problems at the guard spot. Matt Nieto and SJ Belangel can share point guard duties. Tyler Tio is more of a combo guard who can be slotted in as either point or off-guard. This gives BJ Andrade the opportunity to be Ateneo’s chief gunner. The sample size from last season may be small, but whenever BJ is on the floor, he makes the right decisions. He shoots when he is open, he makes the right passes, and defends the opposing guards well. In the Blue Eagles’ run in the D-League, he was used extensively and made good use of his time on the floor. He might not (yet) be as proficient as Anton from deep, but he more than makes up for it with his defense.
You heard it here first.
Wait, let me explain further. If you thought last season’s lineup was deep, then this season’s lineup is deeper. This team is stacked to the gills that Coach Tab can play 15-deep per game and still get the job done. Of course, there will be close games in the season (in my opinion, games against UP and Adamson would be close), but the Blue Eagles will manage to escape the regular season unscathed.
Now, the hard part would be staying sharp during the long layoff. Ask Dindo Pumaren and the 2007 UE Red Warriors. Ask Topex Robinson and the 2017 LPU Pirates. No offense to them or their teams, but Coach Tab Baldwin is on another level. He can pull motivation out of anywhere at any time. The Blue Eagles will stay sharp, and will sweep the finals against a stacked UP team out for blood.