Looking forward to UAAP 80

The regular basketball season of the UAAP usually revolves around the AteneoLa Salle rivalry, the iconic “Go USTE” cheer, waiting for UP to win their first game, waiting for UE to lose their first game, Boom Gonzales’ “Gets It To Go!”, FEU and Ron Dennison getting into another fight, SCALPERS, UST underachieving, Adamson overachieving, NU becoming scarily good to scarily bad in a matter of games, a second-gen star from a PBA family making headlines (Ravena, Teng, Parks), and, of course, that one iconic game that defines the season (DLSU — UST Game 3 2013, ADMU— FEU Semis 2015, etc).

You know what else happens in the regular season? Unless you’re rooting for a team that has a well-funded sports program (ADMU, DLSU, and now NU) or really just a solid program overall (FEU, AdU), you can’t shake the nagging sense that you’re going to waste your basketball life for a solid three months (UE) or until you remind everyone of your school’s solid cheer dance program instead (UP, UST).

But don’t feel bad just yet! Every UAAP season has always yielded positives for all teams, no matter how talent-laden or talent-depleted they are.

Take for example the University of the East. They narrowly missed the Final Four in Seasons 77 and 78 before crashing down to 7th last year. Hard to be optimistic when you have a “good-for-3-wins” team, especially when academic reasons, graduations, and transfers have demoted the Red Warriors to “can-we-win-one-game-with-these-players” squad and causing Baby Dalupan, Jawo, and James Yap to roll over their graves once the season starts.

But UE still has an exciting sophomore in Alvin Pasaol, the lone bright spot for the red and white last year, and who will have every freedom to improve his PBA draft stock for the future. And, as a Lasallian, I can say that’s it’s always good to have a Pumaren on the sidelines. UE has two in Derrick and Dindo!

That’s just one of the many (okay, very few) reasons to get excited as a UE student. Either that or you’re required to watch for your PE class.

Then there’s the University of Sto. Tomas. Again, hard to be positive for a team that was fresh off a Finals appearance in S78, went through a match-fixing controversy with their head coach, and became the worst team in S79, right? Then again, they’re bringing Steve Akomo, the one they dubbed “the Ben Mbala Stopper,” a title as good as Daenerys’ mother-of-dragons-breaker-of-chains-in-love-with-my-nephew-monologue.

And when you have a Ben Mbala Stopper, then UST should be just fine…

(Receives news that Akomo might not play due to eligibility issues)

… Well, at least UST still has the “GO USTE” chant.

(Side note: I’ve been a staunch supporter of making a “GO PINAS” chant that sounds exactly the same as UST’s. Imagine chanting “GO PINAS” while waving our flag during Gilas games. Goosebumps, pare.)

I’m not going to lie, it’s a tough sell to get excited for UE and UST this season. No wonder the schedules have both teams playing in the 2 PM slot more than any other team this year. But we still have six teams to get excited for and all for the right reasons! Trust me.

University of the Philippines’ imaginary OU line last season was at 2.5, and they went on to win 5 games, their best win total in 10 years! They’ve been the laughingstock of the league for so long, they went back to the drawing board and changed the whole team culture under coach Bo Perasol (UST and UE, please take note). With this, the Fighting Maroons have regained their swag. UP is going to miss Jett Manuel (15ppg, 4th-best last season) but they still have veterans (Dario, Desiderio, Webb, de Liaño brothers) ready to step up.

I’ve set the imaginary OU line to 5.5 and I believe they’re still going over. Who’s laughing now?

Definitely not the National University, who had a rough couple of years since winning the league in 2014. They lost a Final Four match to UST in 2015 and bowed out of a place in the semi-finals last season. The Bulldogs have been wildly inconsistent (won 4 of first 6 games, lost 7 of last 8 in S79), and could potentially relinquish the fifth spot to UP. But with the backing of great scouting and player development departments funded by Henry Sy’s Iron Bank, NU will still have a very competitive squad to fend off the Maroons. For one, they have Issa Gaye — the 6’9″ from Senegal that should easily replace Aroga’s production.

Along with holdovers Matt Salem, Jay Alejandro, and returning UAAP coach Jamike Jarin, the Bulldogs might have enough to stave off a furious UP rally (pun intended!) but it’s still hard to imagine them making a leap in the Final Four when they have Adamson soaring above them (another pun intended!).

The trio of Pappi Sarr, Jerrick Ahanmisi, and Robbie Manalang coached by Franz Pumaren led to a 5-game improvement for AdU last season. And they looked scarily good for the most part, before facing DLSU in the semi-finals. It was Pumaren’s gamble to take on Ahanmisi that saved the AdU season and turned the lanky guard to a scoring threat, which was well-documented by Spin. They also have Jerie Pingoy, the Tamaraw-turned-Blue Eagle-turned-Falcon. The former UAAP Juniors MVP will have a third chance to show his talent in the collegiate setting, and if there’s anything left from Pingoy, they could easily pass the Tamaraws.

It’s great to know that the FEU Tamaraws are already in midseason form. A melee broke between DLSU and FEU in a tournament held in Davao last month. The scuffle not only reignited the rivalry between two teams but have also raised scalper prices for the first DLSU-FEU game which will be held on Sunday! Thank you, scheduling gods. This year, the Tamaraws will be under Olsen Rararacela, who will be working double time to prepare a team that lost Arong and Raymar Jose, two of FEU’s best players from last season. 

But when the going gets tough, FEU can sleep well knowing they have Ron Dennison to start a fight.

I’ve always made fun of Ateneo’s “One Big Fight!” and “Get That Ball!” cheers, only because those are the same cheers we used when we were 7 years old. But I’ve also admired their basketball program overall for consistently fielding a very talented squad. Take a look at this — in the last 10 years, the Blue Eagles have only missed the Final Four once, have been in the Finals seven times, and achieved a 5-peat in the process. Even without Von Pessumal (PBA) and Kiefer Ravena (ABL while waiting for TnT or Meralco to get a top pick), Ateneo was thisclose to getting their sixth title in 10 years.

I’m still ranking them just below DLSU because A) Thirdy Ravena was exposed in the Finals and B) I’m from DLSU and I’m never going to put ADMU over DLSU in any of my column ever. 

It’s never a good sign when your “best player” scores a total of 11 points in the UAAP Finals. Maybe it was a matchup problem for Ravena against DLSU’s wings. Maybe he was tasked to be more of a facilitator than a scorer. Or maybe we’re asking too much from a guy we thought was better than Kiefer Ravena back in 2015. But Ateneo being Ateneo, the Blue Eagles still have a very deep squad with Aaron Black, the Nieto brothers, and former LSGH MVP Troy Mallillin donning the blues this year. And I’m also preparing for a Thirdy-Ravena-redemption season in which he will average 37 points, 16 rebounds, 18 assists on 78% shooting.

Don’t let me down, Thirdy.

We’re down to the last but certainly not the least: THE BEN MBALA IS PLAYING HERE UNIVERSITY (also known as the DLSU Green Archers). Everything starts and ends with the former SWU Cobra Cameroonian who transferred to join the Taft-based university in 2013 and went on to win the UAAP MVP last year. But the Archers will be missing his services for their first two games (FEU and NU) due to the ongoing FIBA Afrobasket.

Despite the early absence of Mbala, DLSU are still the overwhelming favorite to repeat with Aldin Ayo orchestrating a beautiful chaos of high-pressured defense matched with fast-paced offense, showing everyone how Dothrakis would do if they were a basketball team, Melecio building from a strong ROY campaign, RICCI RIVERO DUNKING ON JUST ABOUT EVERYONE, and Kib Montalbo and Prince Rivero leading a team that lost 2-time Finals MVP Jeron Teng.

That’s it! We managed to cover all eight teams just in time for the UAAP 80, another year full of social media trash talks, looking forward to the cheer dance competition where everyone instantly becomes an expert, the first ADMU-DLSU game, the first DLSU-Ron Dennison game, and of course, our dear scalpers asking if we have extra tickets. A lot of things to look forward!

Not unless you’re from UE or UST.

– Rey David Gamboa

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