Team Record Last Season: 8-6, lost to Ateneo Blue Eagles in the Finals

Key Losses: Paul Desiderio, Diego Dario, Jarrell Lim

As much hype as there’s been around this coming iteration of UP, much more needs to be made about the loss of Paul Desiderio. While he struggled with his shot for most of last season (38.6% FG), Desiderio was the clear leader and resounding voice of the team. He had the gall to either take the last shot or choose entrust Juan Gomez De Liano with the ball in crunch time. Winning was all that mattered to him.

UP’s going to be absolutely stacked with young stars this season, and they may sorely miss Desiderio’s leadership and stature on the team. Hopefully he finds a way to stay connected with this team, just in case he’ll need to patch up any issues that may unravel behind closed doors.

Diego Dario and Jarell Lim are two losses to what was an already thin UP bench. The two shuffled as back-up PGs for the team, with Dario serving as the more offensive-minded, and Lim as the defensive stalwart.

Key Additions: Ricci Rivero, Kobe Paras, Jaybie Mantilla

Ricci Rivero and Kobe Paras are UP Fighting Maroons. Though we’ve known this for a year now, it’s surreal to believe that these two top talents are about to make their debuts for a team that was a laughing stock just a few seasons ago. 

Both players provide a jolt of athleticism, length and star power to a team that finished runner-up in Season 81. Kobe’s game is predicated more from these attributes, but for good reason. He’s likely the most athletic player in the UAAP already, meaning he’ll put up numbers simply by being stronger and faster than his defenders. Or he’ll just jump over them.

Ricci’s game is a lot more graceful, as his slashing and driving skill set comes with an array of sidesteps and dipsy dos. The Season 80 Mythical Five member is already a proven star in the UAAP, and will provide UP with much-needed shooting in place of Desiderio. But his biggest value addition might come on the defensive side, where mix of lateral speed, length and awareness allows him to be a menace on the perimeter.

An underrated addition to the Fighting Maroons roster is former Cesafi MVP Jaybie Mantilla, who will be replacing Dario and Lim as the full-fledged back-up point guard. Expect this one-and-done prospect to capitalize on his quickness to continue pushing the pace, a category UP led the league in last season.

Key Returnees: Bright Akhuetie, Juan Gomez De Liano

Do you remember who won MVP last season?

Well let me help you out. With averages of 18.9 points, 14.6 rebounds, 2.8 assists and a 60.5% FG clip, Bright Akhuetie walked away with the MVP award in his debut season. And coming into this year, he might be the least talked about of UP’s four stars.

But scoring and defending in the paint may be UP’s biggest weakness coming into the season, so Bright might actually become the most important player in dictating the ceiling of this team. If UP’s going to challenge for a title, Akhuetie better have made significant improvements in both his offensive game vs bigger defenders, as well as his defensive awareness as the team’s lead defensive anchor.

Key Stat: Defensive Rating (97.65, 6th in UAAP)

UP was not good on defense last year. Even in the playoffs when they played way above the 8-6 record they finished the Elimination Rounds with, they still were not a great defensive team. In the Finals, they gave up an average of 93.5 points to Ateneo in two games. That’s just not going to cut it against that two-way powerhouse.

The newcomers are going to need to make a difference here. I already hinted at Ricci’s defensive prowess on the perimeter, but Kobe also has a shot at being extremely impactful on the defensive side. He has the physical tools to be a defensive beast from the perimeter, inside and even on the glass, but he’s going to need to show that he can lock-in on that side of the ball. 

UP needs him to.

X-Factor: Jun Manzo

Let me say this: I’ve never a big Jun Manzo believer. I’ve always thought he was a pretty inefficient floor general. But Manzo shut me up in the Final Four last year with the heart that he showed against both Adamson and Ateneo. He really reminds me of what Fred VanVleet was to the Raptors’ title run last season; For what both lack in talent, they make up in passion, heart and a bit of situational luck.

If Manzo can catch fire at the right time, his flames can rub off on the rest of the team. With their talent level being as high as it already is, a three to four-game VanVleet-esque run may just be what can propel UP over the rest of the pack.

Key Question: Can the whole at least equal the sum of all its parts?

A few months ago, I went to a particular theme park somewhere in the Philippines *wink wink* with a bunch of first-timers. In the days prior to our trip to the park, I was the theme park’s major hypeman. I’d single out each and every ride by mentioning their different levels of thrill, ultimately making the theme park look like the most magical place on Earth.

It wasn’t. While each ride — old and new — provided its share of thrills, for one reason or another, the totality of the experience just… fell flat. 

See where I’m getting at?

The Fighting Maroons have a plethora of superstars at their disposal, and have their fans drooling at the possibility of a championship for the first time since the 80s. But there’s still only one ball on the court, and a high number of stars in one team always drags along questions of chemistry, fit and the balancing of egos.

Coach Bo Perasol is going to have to find a way to optimize the usage of all his players.

Will he keep Juan Gomez de Liano on the bench? Will he stagger the minutes of his two uber-athletic newcomers? Will Bright Akhuetie get enough touches in side? Most importantly, can all the players willingly accept the roles given to them for an entire season?

UP will need to find a way to answer all these mini questions in order to secure a justifiable end result from their shiny puzzle pieces. Otherwise, any marginal improvement on paper may have to mask a slew of unflattering news items from their list of fiery personalities.

Prediction: 11-3 and the 2nd seed after the elimination rounds, fall in three games to the Ateneo Blue Eagles in the Finals

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Season 82 UP Fighting Maroons are better than their predecessors from last season. However, UP’s final result will mirror last year’s: A runner-up finish behind the Ateneo Blue Eagles.

The Fighting Maroons’ amazing and unprecedented run to the Finals last year has made most UAAP fans forget about the fact that UP only secured a Final Four spot on the final weekend of the elimination rounds. They were also lucky enough that a tiebreaker gifted them the opportunity to move to the 3rd seed, where they outplayed a similarly inexperienced Adamson squad instead of becoming Ateneo’s prey had they fallen to 4th.

So while I don’t want to take anything away from UP’s incredible rise to runner-up in Season 81, that result should also not diminish the value of what will be a similar finish in Season 82.

Because this is UP team is going to be really, really, really good. And despite all possible questions on chemistry, with Akhuetie, Paras, Rivero and Juan GDL, they have 4 players that are at least arguably the best at their respective positions. Their talent alone should be enough for them to surpass last season’s win-total by the midway point of the second round.

As we’ve seen in the NBA, for a team of superstars to turn their talent into a title, it often times needs to be built more organically (Steph-Klay-Draymond Golden State Warriors) or requires at least a year of tinkering to perfect (Lebron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat). 

Even if all of UP’s talent finds a way to immediately mesh, I find it difficult to see this team dethroning the Ateneo Blue Eagles, at least this upcoming season. Ateneo has just as much talent on their roster as UP, but has a huge upper hand in experience and familiarity with one another. 

At the end of the day, UP is a near certainty to make the Final Four. They’re almost surely going to be a legitimately good team, and one that, gun to my head, I’d choose will earn a twice-to-beat advantage for the first time in the school’s history. This is the surest thing they’ve had in three decades.

This just won’t be the year they reach the mountaintop. This won’t even be the year they become the Kings of Katipunan. For UP fans that suffered through all the years of moral victories and 0-win seasons, that should be more than fine. 

If all the stars align for UP, perhaps they can squeak their way into a premature championship. But with Ateneo losing a bunch of core stars, and with UP retaining many of theirs, the Fighting Maroons should be satisfied with the end-result of their so as long as internally, their stars stayed aligned.