The long wait is over.
The 78th season of the UAAP Men’s Basketball Tournament finally kicks-off on Saturday, September 5. The tournament usually kicks off in July, but was moved to a later date following a shift in academic calendars by member schools.
Surprise exits were supplanted by surprise entries, and this season will make sure that it is worth the wait. The University of the Philippines hosts this year’s tournament, with the theme “Tumitindig, Sumusulong” – moving away from the usual English mottos for the simple reason being “we are Filipino,” according to Dr. Anril Tiatco, director of the UP Information Office and overall chair of the opening ceremony of Season ’78.
Here’s a look at this year’s teams:
Hungry For More
Now that they’ve had a taste for it, they want more.
The NU Bulldogs had a historic championship run last season, ending a 40-year-old title drought despite being the fourth seed in the Final Four. They lost key players in Troy Rosario, Glenn Khobuntin, and Henri Betayene, but will still be bannered by Gelo Alolino and Alfred Aroga. After years of playing with a talent like Bobby Ray Parks, the Bulldogs thrived under the radar last season, surprising everyone with their chemistry.
This year, they will have a target on their backs once more, as every team would want to claim a victory over the defending champs. Coach Eric Altamirano will welcome back defensive wingman Jeoffrey Javillionar back in the fold, after the player missed all of last season due to injury. Sophomore Mohammad Salim and Rev Diputado may be able to see more minutes this season after performing well during the preseason tournaments.
Raging on to the Top
One of the most intact lineups this upcoming season will be the FEU Tamaraws. Last season’s runners up did lose a couple of key players in Anthony Hargrove and Carl Cruz, but they are still stacked with last year’s veterans. Mike Tolomia, Mac Belo, and RR Pogoy is already a core group to reckon with. Coach Nash Racela also has the likes of Russel Escoto, Ron Dennison, Francis Tamsi, Raymar Jose, and Alejandrino Inigo Jr. in his arsenal, making them one of the favorites this upcoming season to win it all.
The Escoto brothers will no longer be the only brother tandem in the lineup, as FEU tabbed Fil-Euro brothers Ken and Steve Holmqvist. The impact of Anthony Hargrove’s departure will be lessened by the arrival of 6’5” Cameroonian recruit Prince Orizu. FEU will surely be a team to look forward to this season.
When Height Wouldn’t Be Might
Last year’s runner up De La Salle were one of the feared teams in the past. This year, it won’t be the same, as Norbert Torres and Yutien Andrada entered the PBA draft, while Arnold Van Opstal decided to sit the year out to rehabilitate an injury. Prized recruit Ben Mbala, meanwhile, was ruled out for this year’s tournament after playing an exhibition game during the offseason.
The team will still be a force to reckoned with, as Jeron Teng returns with Jason Perkins, Thomas Torres, Julian Sargeant, and sophomore Paolo Rivero. The loss of sharpshooter Almond Vosotros was easily filled by the entry of youth team standouts Jollo Go and Joshua Caracut. The stoic Coach Juno Sauler will probably downplay his team’s chances, but it won’t be a surprise to see them back in the Final Four this year.
King Eagle’s Swan Song
Keifer Ravena looks like a PBA-ready guard especially after his clutch performances during the Sinag Pilipinas’ campaign in the SEA Games. The King Eagle will play one more year though, as he looks to erase the memory of dropping their twice-to-beat advantage to eventual champions NU Bulldogs last season. Key returnees include Von Pessumal, reigning Rookie of the Year Arvin Tolentino, and big men Gwyne Capacio, Gideon Babilonia, and Alfonso Gotladera, who will be playing his final year of eligibility.
As a school known for not only for its basketball program but also for their academic excellence, Ateneo has not been short of high school standouts wanting to join their team. While the team lost Nico Elorde and Chris Newsome to the PBA, they were able to attract the Nieto brothers to join their team, and the collegiate debut of Jerie Pingoy will finally happen this year. Import Chibueze Ikeh will be their man in the middle, and a surprise turn of events saw prized recruit Hubert Cani become eligible to play for the Eagles this season. It’s a “championship or bust” season for Ravena, and they have all the tools they need to win it all this year.
Trusting the System
Last year’s hosts looked like a strong contender for the title, with hotshot guard Roi Sumang leading the charge and two foreign reinforcements in Charles Mammie and Moustapha Arafat taking turns in the middle. They didn’t quite make the cut though, and settled for a fifth place finish in last year’s tournament.
This year, they saw the exit of their foreign players and a couple of key players, but the biggest loss would be Sumang, who decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the PBA draft. To add salt to their wound, guard Dan Alberto was deemed ineligible for what would have been his final year in the league. With nine rookies and seven veterans representing the team this year, they will have to trust Coach Derrick Pumaren’s signature defensive schemes in order to register some numbers on the win column.
Embracing the Underdog Status
After back-to-back Finals appearances and a relatively intact lineup coming into last season, the UST Growling Tigers were among the favorites to finally win it all. Unfortunately, they buckled and didn’t even make the Final Four last season.
Maybe it was the pressure of being on top, or maybe they just weren’t prepared. Whatever it was, it is now in the past, and they are ready for another fresh start. The Tigers will anchor their campaign on fourth year center and perennial MVP contender Karim Abdul, UST-through and through Kevin Ferrer, and last year’s revelation, Kent Lao. They have a sneaky good team with scoring stalwart Louie Vigil, Henry Subido, and veterans Ed Daquioag and Jan Sheriff still with the team. With no expectations from the team, the Tigers will hope to recapture their status as contenders once again.
Major Changes for a Major Rise
Another year, another shot at rising from the cellar.
The UP Fighting Maroons have been a symbol of futility in the UAAP Basketball tournament because of their poor record, but they have always fought to shed that tag. Though they would only win one game last season, they were optimistic with their chances moving forward, with former Rookie of the Year Kyles Lao at the helm. Unfortunately, the talented guard suffered an ACL tear that would cause him to sit out the season. Still, the team has a promising core in Diego Dario, JR Gallarza, Henry Asilum, Dave Moralde, and Mark Juruena. This year’s hosts are welcoming new changes to their team, and with a new logo, they hope they would also have a new image as contenders in the UAAP. Look for UP to fight for a Final Four spot more than ever.
Hope in Rebuilding
The Adamson Falcons had a forgettable Season 77, winning just one game through the season. Their dismal performance led to rookie head coach Kenneth Duremdes’ exit after just one full season. It didn’t help that scoring guards Don Trollano, Ryan Monteclaro and Jansen Rios have already played out their years of eligibility. Among last year’s holdovers, Dawn Ochea, Jospeph Nalos, and Ivan Villanueva are the only players who were able to play all 14 games for the Falcons, and while it doesn’t guarantee minutes for them this season, they are players who may have bigger roles for the team.
New head coach Michael Fermin will have an almost impossible task to improve on last year’s performance, but a team with nothing to lose is always the most dangerous.