The oldest collegiate league in the country kicked off last Saturday, June 27 at the Mall of Asia Arena. A montage of season 90 prepared the crowd for the scintillating opening performance. Mapua Institute of Technology is this year’s host, and the school known for its engineering excellence aptly themed this season as “Engineered for Sports Excellence in the New Decade.”
While the NCAA has multiple sports where the schools will compete in, all eyes are on the basketball tournament as this basketball-crazy county takes a closer look at the future stars of the sport.
The San Beda Dynasty
Throughout the past decade, the San Beda Red Lions have dominated the NCAA tournament. They have been known to develop the best high school talents in the country, but most chose to leave for other schools. Things have changed since, with homegrown talents committing to the program. As a result, San Beda has won eight of the last ten championships in the tournament.
This year, they welcomed a new coach in famed high school coach Jamike Jarin. Jarin, the longtime coach of the Ateneo Blue Eaglets, was somewhat of a legend in the high school ranks, leading the juniors team to multiple championships in the UAAP. He now leads a team that is gunning for their sixth straight championship in the NCAA. He’ll have a team full of holdovers from last year, with only a lone recruit entering this season.
If the preseason is any indication, the Red Lions are still the favorites after they won the Filoil Flying V Hanes Premier Cup preseason tournament against UAAP Champion De La Salle University.
The Other Preseason Champions
The Jose Rizal University Heavy Bombers are entering the 91st season of the NCAA as one of the contenders for the title, as they parade a veteran-laden team led by team captain Paolo Pontejos and Dave Sanchez. African reinforcement Abdel Poutouochi has served his residency, and will now be eligible to suit up for the Heavy Bombers. He will form a formidable frontcourt rotation with Rassak Abdul Wahad.
Coach Vergel Meneses will also look to incorporate NCAA Juniors’ MVP Darious Estrella into the rotation as they look to return to the Final Four this year.
Dealing With Changes
College sports are unpredictable in terms of continuity. With players only being able to play for a maximum of five years, and the possibility of players transferring to other schools, the teams’ ability to adjust to changes usually decide how successful their run will be in the tournament.
The Arellano University Chiefs were the surprise runner ups in last year’s tournament. They were the highest scoring team in Season 90, and finished with the second seed before being swept in the Finals by the Red Lions. However, they lost at least two key players in Prince Caperal and John Pinto, who are now both playing in the PBA. They are hoping that reigning Rookie of the Year Dioncee Holts and SEA Games gold medalist Jiovani Jalalon will lead the team to another successful season.
The St. Benilde Blazers barely missed the Final Four last season, and they’ll try to reach it this season without a couple of key players. Paolo Taha and Mark Romero will no longer be with the team, but their holdovers will carry their hunger from last season. Jonathan Grey will lead the Blazers in their quest to be one of the teams to beat in the NCAA. They’ve shown that they can play defense in the preseason tournament, but they’ll have to be more consistent if they wish to finish at the top half of the tournament.
The San Sebastian Stags were the only team to have won a championship over the past nine years, and are the reason why the Red Lions are not gunning for their 10th straight championship. However, they had a rough season last year, finishing at the bottom half of the standings. This year, they have to deal with more changes, as CJ Perez opted to transfer to Ateneo De Manila University while Coach Topex Robinson moved to Lyceum. Rookie head coach Rodney Santos installed a new system, and hopefully a new attitude to the team as they hope to bounce back from a disappointing season.
Emilio Aguinaldo College is looking to climb out of the cellar as well, and they’ll have to do it without Jan Jamon, Noube Happi, and John Tayongtong. The Generals are pinning their hopes on Francis Musayac and returning players Sidney Onwubere and Remy Morada. They have a couple of new Cameroonian recruits in Hamadou Laminou and Adoum Mbang who will try to fill the void that Happi left with the team.
Returning with a Vengance
This year’s host Mapua finished as one of the bottom teams in last year’s tournament. This year, they are hopeful to finish the season strong behind the returning Josan Nimes. Nimes was sidelined by an injury for all of last season, and this year, he’s raring to compete and bring the Cardinals back in the Final Four picture. The Cardinals will also parade a foreign recruit in Nigerian Allwell Oraeme.
With Nimes carrying the scoring load and Oraeme manning the middle, this year’s hosts are looking to make their school proud by improving from last year’s 4-14 showing.
Team Over Individuals
Coach Topex Robinson parted ways with San Sebastian after not having much success last season. Though his last successful stint with San Sebastian was when he had superstars like Calvin Abueva, Ian Sanggalang, and Ronald Pascual, Robinson is optimistic that his new team in Lyceum can take advantage of their obscurity to surprise the league. He wants to install a system which focuses more on team basketball rather than individual play.
He’ll rely on the returning Joseph Gabayni and Jebb Bulawan to take charge of the paint. Robinson, who was known as a defensive guard during his playing days, will most definitely infect his players with his tenacity on that end of the floor.
Climbing With No Ceiling
In a league that sees a lot of foreign talents beefing up the frontcourts of teams, the Letran Knights opted to field a team with no such reinforcement. They finished with an even 9-9 record last season, but missed the cut for the Final Four, largely due to a season-ending injury to Kevin Racal.
This year, Racal is back, and so are Mark Cruz and Rey Nambatac, as they form one of the most formidable backcourt combinations in the league. They will also be led by a new coach in Aldrin Ayo, who was part of the 90’s Letran team headed by Kerby Raymundo and Chris Calaguio.
The University of Perpetual Help Altas barely made it to the Final Four last season, but was easily handled by the top seeded San Beda Red Lions. With reigning MVP Scottie Thompson playing his last year, the Altas are looking to ride their best player to where he can take them in the tournament.
He’ll have plenty of help inside as they recruited 6-foot-8 Bright Akhuetie and 6-foot-11 Prince Eze, who will be their defensive anchors this season.